AN AMERICAN MYTH holds that we all descended from those brave immigrants who, in whatever time and for whatever reasons, gave up decaying, corrupted Europe and sailed for this new continent where they found freedom and escape. Never mind that our forefathers were not all white or European or free in their choice to come here, that not all of them got far beyond the crowded, filthy port cities, that not all they did here was blessed by innocence. It is a myth that began in the minds of desperate immigrants who could only hope the new world would bring them better and found expression at the base of France's birthday gift to America, the Statue of Liberty.
In The Emigrants, the first half of his film epic on the immigrant experience, Swedish director Jan Troell celebrated and plumbed this myth, seeking its depths in the varying responses of a small band of Scandinavian peasants to the enormity of their voyage to America. With painstaking care and Iyric skill, Troell traced the slow dissolution of the family's way of life in rural Sweden, the unrelenting sequence of deaths, injuries, famines and persecutions by which they came to know that their life there could not go on.
PICKING UP ENERGY as his characters, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as Karl-Oscar and Kristina Neilson, took life, Troell detailed the tough choices and sacrifices, the illnesses and griefs that propelled the group to the Promised Land. Despite the ambivalent picture he painted of the passage into Canaan. of the hostile reaction these immigrants of the mid-1840s encountered in America, Troell brought The Emigrants to a climactic affirmation as Karl-Oscar blazed the boundaries of his new farm by the shores of a Minnesota lake.
The New Land, filmed simultaneously with The Emigrants, continues the saga of the Neilson family and their encounter with America, but the emphasis has moved from affirmation to a tougher examination of how attainable the dreams that fueled the myth really were, a hard-nosed appraisal that remains sensitive and respectful to the people who dreamed those dreams. Troell presents a lavishly detailed social portrait of the immigrants at work and at rest, lingering over universal moments of human experience--the birth of a child, the marriage of a friend, the death of a neighbor.
TROELL, WHO PRODUCED, directed and edited the film, creates a world that rings true both as history and as cinema. His soft colors and elegant camerawork belie a willingness to experiment for chilling or striking effects such as the visual echo of quick cuts which shatters the silence of the forest when Karl-Oscar's younger brother Robert shoots what he believes is an Indian warrior. In his control of natural images, his imagination and sense of the complex relations of individuals to social processes, Troell comes closer to Bergman than any other current director. He edges near the best Faulkner, imaginatively recreating a history which is truer and more substantial than the history of dates and figures, a history with fictional embellishments that deepen our understanding.
If Troell falls short of the Faulknerian, it is in his failure to cast his characters into fuller form. With few exceptions the immigrants remain chiefly archetypes--the homesick mother, burdened with children and aging, the father struggling to fulfill his dream of betterment for his family. In Troell's hands the characters are molded to illustrate the point he is making about our history, about us.
The immigrants are contrasted with the haunting wraiths in the background, the remnants of the once-proud owners of the land. Troell's flair for faces shows poignantly in the aged, starving Indian women begging a scrap of meat from a frightened, guilty white woman. A narrator describes the oppression of the local Sioux tribes by the U.S. government as desperate Indians take to the warpath seeking food and redress, sweeping the settlers up in yet another external force they cannot comprehend but only react to. Troell does not look for easy morals--his Indians are brutal, gaunt and dirty beside the blond and prosperous farmers. The worst of their savageries, the disembowelment of a pregnant settler, was cut from the film by an offended American distributor.
BUT, TROELL DELINEATES the central, original crack in the innocence myth--the new land was stolen from Indians who were hanged or murdered for trying to retake it. Troell does not blame the immigrants for a situation they did not create ("I paid a fair price for the land," says Karl-Oscar). The Indian dilemma is a symptom of the wider problem that underlies the history of the immigrant experience. At the center of the quest for the immigrant dream is a hollow place, born of the loss of the old home and bred of the sacrifices that won a new one. As Karl-Oscar grows older, he prospers, moving from sodhouse to log cabin, to frame house, and finally to a fine big farmhouse dress in fresh paint. Along the way he loses his wife, his brother, and finally the memory of why he came. He cannot find his home county in Sweden on a map. His children cannot speak Swedish. In gaining America he has lost something deeper within himself.
These two films, The Emigrants and The New Land, form an epic story of the quiet heroism and universal response at the core of one of our cherished myths. It is perhaps most telling of all that this fine and noble film about the American past was not attempted, would not have been attempted, by an American. That attempt awaits a more mature time.