11 October 2016



This Oscar-nominated Swedish-language film is what you'd call a proper epic. It clocks in at a whopping three hours and twelve minutes long, and yet it's still only the first half of Jan Troell's two-film series based on the books by Vilhelm Moberg, the second of which is THE NEW LAND which came along the following year.

THE EMIGRANTS tells the story of a Swedish farming family living in the mid-nineteenth century (the tale kicks off in 1844) who pack up and move to North America when they realise that they can no longer eke a sufficient living off the land. I've summed the film up in one pithy sentence there but there's really a lot more to it than that.

Karl-Oskar Nilsson, brilliantly played by Max Von Sydow (although it was Liv Ullman, playing his wife, who got the Oscar nomination), is a poor Swedish farmer who marries the lovely Kristina and raises a family. He's a hard worker, a good husband and father and pretty much an all-round nice guy.

Kristina's knocked up for pretty much the whole of this film, and she's not always happy about it either. She keeps begging her hubby to desist from making the beast-with-two-backs with her as they're just creating more mouths to feed, but hubby's not keen on desisting. After all, in the days before TV and Internet, there wasn't too much for folks to do of an evening except knock boots, haha.

Anyway, though this heavily-forested part of Sweden is utterly beautiful to look at, it seems that the Nilssons just can't catch a break when it comes to working the land. Their crops fail time and again due to inclement weather and, when one terrible day a tragedy directly related to their impoverished situation strikes the little family, Karl-Oskar decides he's done with Sweden for good.

He packs up his wife and kids and takes the boat to America along with, seemingly, half their little village. Karl-Oskar's younger brother Robert, fed-up with having the tar beaten out of him by the farmer who employs him, is dying to get to the States too, along with his best mate Arvid, a lovely fellow who almost certainly did not commit the act of bestiality with a heifer of which he was accused by his employers, heh-heh-heh.

Kristina's Uncle Danjel, a religious preacher, comes along too for the ride with his own family as does the local whore, Ulrika, and her daughter Elin. That's not my word for her, by the way. She's known as a whore by the townspeople because she has a daughter out of wedlock. 

Well, that and the fact that she's worked as a prostitute, that probably has something to do with it as well. Snigger. She's found God, though (was he down behind the sofa cushions the whole time?), courtesy of Kristina's Uncle Danjel the preacher man, (was he the only man who could ever reach her?), so it's all good.

Just like the colossal sprawling story of the Nilssons' is divided up into two three-hour films, this first film is divided into three clearly delineated parts. There's deciding to go to America, the voyage to America and landing in America and looking for somewhere to settle.

My favourite bit was probably the voyage to America, though it was the toughest part to watch. Believe me, these people were not rich and they did not travel by luxury liner. Ever heard of a coffin ship? We had them here in Ireland during the time of the Great Famine of the 1840s.

Desperate folks who didn't want to die of starvation due to the blight that killed off the potato crop would scrape together their few shillings and buy themselves a passage to America. They called America 'the New Land' and they thought that all their problems would be over when they got there. Well, maybe they would be or maybe they wouldn't be, but first they had to get there...

The ship in THE EMIGRANTS is, to all intents and purposes, a coffin ship. Here in Dublin we have a genuine replica of an original coffin ship, the Jeanie Johnston, docked down by the Irish Financial Services Centre.

I've been on the tour myself and the ship, inside and out, looks pretty much exactly the same as the one in THE EMIGRANTS. Not surprisingly, as they were both used to take poor people to America under dreadful conditions in the 1840s. The film is super-authentic in this respect.

The Nilsson family could never have imagined in their wildest dreams just how tiresome the ten-week journey to America would be. The pregnant Kristina (yep, she's all knocked-up again!) suffers constantly with the most awful sea-sickness, along with most of the other passengers.

Whole families have to share the one cramped berth and the food, which looks disgustingly like vomit in a communal pot, is barely fit for purpose. Sanitary conditions on board the ship are virtually non-existent and Kristina is horrified when she finds out that she has lice, again in common with most of the other passengers.

So many people died on the Irish Famine ships that they were nicknamed 'coffin ships.' When the Famine ended, doctors and other health officials went medieval on all these ships' asses and forced them to comply with health and sanitation regulations. Sadly, it was too late for some people.

There are deaths aboard the ship in THE EMIGRANTS too and plenty of sad burials at sea. When the Nilssons finally land in America (not a good time to discover you've forgotten the passports or to lock the front door back at home), they are just glad beyond belief to be stepping foot on solid ground again. But the real ordeals are only just beginning for the brave little family...

THE NEW LAND is the sequel to this fantastic epic movie which was critically acclaimed all over the place on its release and is still held in high regard today. Both three-hour-long films are available on Blu-Ray right now from THE CRITERION COLLECTION, complete with some rather nifty extra features. These include interviews, trailers and a free essay that will keep you all as happy as Larry for hours on end.

For anyone who ever thought that Sweden was just the homeland of Eurovision-winning pop group ABBA, Swedish meatballs and the Swedish chef from THE MUPPET SHOW, this amazing duo of films could just be the eye-opener that showcases both Swedish cinema and also the magnificent sweep of Swedish scenery that I personally never knew existed until I watched THE EMIGRANTS. Do yourself a big favour and buy these films in their handy two-film boxset. Your eyes will thank you.


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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