Oscar Blindspots: The Emigrants

It might be 50 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1972 through the month of May

The term “epic” gets thrown around a lot when referencing Jan Troell’s The Emigrants. Despite a globe-spanning adventure featuring dozens of people, the film smartly narrows its focus to deliver an intimate story about a family hoping to live the American dream.

Max von Sydow stars as Karl Oskar Nilsson, a Swedish farmer living in the province of Småland. Karl Oskar marries Kristina Johansdotter (Liv Ullmann). As their family grows, the group struggles with poor weather, field conditions and bad harvests, leaving them hungry and in debt.

Karl Oskar’s younger brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) is overworked and beaten on a separate farm and dreams of emigrating to the United States. Following a family tragedy, Kristina and Karl Oskar decide to emigrate joined by Robert and his friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt), Kristina’s uncle Danjel (Allan Edwall), and a number of Danjel’s religious followers including the former prostitute Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), and her daughter Elin (Eva-Lena Zetterlund).

The film is split into two distinct halves. The first half is set in Sweden and features the necessary backstory to set up the emigration. The second-half is the arduous journey. The three-hour-plus runtime is more than justified with the trials and tribulations. That does not mean the film doddles. Karl Oskar and Kristina meet, are married, and have a child within a few minutes of runtime.

There exists a constant push-pull between the desire for a fulfilling life and the desire to remain in your homeland. Karl Oskar desires for more for his family and himself, while Kristina recognizes the dangers and uncertainty with the journey. Additionally, Kristina believes the family struggles are due to Karl Oskar’s irreligious attitudes.

Religious freedom plays a big factor as well. Danjel is persecuted and exiled due to his rejection of the official religion. His rebuking of the local provost and priests is righteous and justified, but he still is not in a position of power. He is turned away from his country and forced to flee. The entirety of the journey is tempered with a Godly light for Danjel. Every bout of seasickness, illness, and death is a sign for Danjel to turn his eyes to God.

Ullmann and von Sydow are the focus of the narrative, but it doesn’t mean they are its most dynamic. In fact, they both drastically underplay the roles. Karl Oskar is thrust into this leadership role and von Sydow delivers a steady quiet. He rarely raises his voice despite being the one in charge. Even when calming his occasionally hysterical wife, he rarely raises above a whisper. He leads by his presence rather than his voice.

Ullmann (Oscar-nominated for the role) is the eternal worrier. She worries about her children, her body, the danger of the trip, the inevitability of death, and everything in between. Ullmann’s greatness lies in not allowing that worry to seep into annoyance. Each worry is justified. When she does get the chance to shriek in pain or in anger, her eyes light up and burst through the screen. She is utterly captivating at every turn.

Axberg is the most likeable character. His youthful good looks and affable demeanor immediately endear the audience to his plight. He is also kind to others, especially the continually ignored Arvid. Edwall is equally captivating as a man with a crisis of faith, tested by tragedy. Zetterlund gives my favorite supporting performance as a woman who is infamous for her exploits, but wears it like a badge of honor. She never appears ashamed and appreciates the role Danjel has given to her. She is the most dynamic presence of the other passengers.

Troell saturates idyllic Sweden in bright yellows when optimism is high, but turns down the color and turns up the dreariness when things get rough. Similarly, the emigration journey is soaked in gray and brown. The bright colors of Karl Oskar and Kristina’s hair are regularly obscured by headwear. This not only stifles their vibrancy but masks their identity in a land that doesn’t know them.

The actual emigration is patient and precise. The scenes on the emigration boat give a true sense of claustrophobia and desperation. These people don’t want to be there, but this is the price of the potential for a better life.

Between Troell’s steady hand and the bevy of great performances, The Emigrants shows the sacrifices people are willing to make in order to better their lives and the lives of their children. Though underseen, the film is an impactful statement on the toll of emigration that still resonates today.

Next week: Men get in over their heads with Sleuth and The Candidate

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