Friday, April 1, 2016

#796: The Emigrants

(Jan Troell, 1971)

The Emigrants is that rare sprawling epic that feels persistently human-scale. Despite covering thousands of miles, many characters, and countless sets and structures, the film never feels like anything more than the story of three people, a husband and wife and his brother, struggling to make a place for themselves in the world. The entire first half of the film takes place in Sweden, with the intermission hitting as they first glimpse the ship that will take them to America. Yet these early scenes never feel superfluous or slow because the characters are so vivid and the filmmaking so poetic.

Like many directors who are their own cinematographer, Troell uses his camera in a primal, instinctual fashion. His work consequently feels less refined than most directors, but his eye and talent for drawing the camera toward the most interesting thing in the field elevates this tactic and gives his work a unique feel. Despite the fact that film is an adaptation (of one of Sweden's most popular series of novels) and Troell was approached to adapt the book rather than choosing it on his own, the film always feels like it has just one hand at the helm. This approach underscores the affection for the characters, making this a movie about the experience of these people rather than just a story about specific individuals. We are emigrating along with them.

There is criticism of The Emigrants from some for painting a picture of the journey of American immigrants in the 1800s as too rosy, framed by a sentimental nostalgia. I actually agree with this characterization of the film. Yes, there are horrible deaths and crushing labor here, and certainly the experience of traveling far away from your home in awful conditions with only slight hope of making it is conveyed effectively. But even this negative experience pales in comparison to what people like this actually went through to get to America in the 1800s. An actual film about this experience would have likely been substantially darker and more explicit, something that likely wouldn't have flown in the early 70s, but more important would have made for a far different movie.

Rather than damn the film, however, I think this more lyrical approach elevates it. The Emigrants isn't meant to depict the true experience of the journey as much as the emotional and psychological effect on these characters. The delivery of this content is meant to underscore the things that are lost and gained by the family along the way. The naturalism of the scenery and Troell's technique fit with the devotion to the land and the Earth they move across. The movie isn't about learning how awful people had it in the mid 1800s, but about the potential in these leaps of faith, potential that we all know was fulfilled by subsequent generations. That the movie comes from Sweden and not the United States makes it more bittersweet - this is a generation of Swedes that saw their system broken and strove for a better life. Sweden itself would soon modernize just like the US, but these were the people who couldn't wait. In this way, The Emigrants is a story of striving, not struggling.

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