The continuing saga of the Nilssons - husband and wife Karl-Oskar and Kristina, their several young children with another on the way, Karl-Oskar's younger brother Robert, and some of their extended family members such as Kristina's Uncle Danjel - and several of their Swedish compatriots is presented. This phase of their story begins where their saga in The Emigrants (1971) left off, in the fall of 1850, having just arrived in Minnesota from their native Sweden to begin what they hope will be a better life. They left Sweden because of the harsh and worsening conditions of their farm life, and chose Minnesota based on the stories of many of their Swedish friends who emigrated there before them. While Karl-Oskar goes through the process of setting up their homestead, eighteen year old Robert already has bigger dreams of striking it big in the California gold rush, something he is reluctant to tell Karl-Oskar until he is ready to leave if only having been under Karl-Oskar's guardianship ...Written by
The Scandinavian film festival at the local cinematheque concluded several weeks ago, but yesterday,as a follow-up, we watched the second film of the mid-19th century Swedish emigration to America saga based on Vilhelm Moberg's novels and directed by Jan Troell. 'The New Land' (or 'Nybyggarna' in Swedish) was released on screen in 1972, one year after 'The Emigrants' and in modern terminology it can be considered a 'sequel' although the whole was probably from start conceived as a tandem of two films. The film continues the epic of the survivors of the group of peasants who, driven by economic constraints and religious persecutions in their native Sweden, had crossed the ocean to begin a new life in America. The new country, represented not only a territory waiting to be explored and a nature that was demanding to be subdued but also a conflicting history ignored by most newcomers. This second film is the story of the first decades of their new life, of the confrontation with different mentalities and the realities of conflicts and contradictions about which the new immigrants knew nothing until then.
Emigration stories are rarely simple, in some respects similar, and differ in many others. 'The Emigrants', the first film was obviously a Swedish saga. The action in 'The New Land' takes place entirely in the United States, but the story is again told from a Swedish perspective (the movie is spoken 99% of the time in Swedish) and the film does not become an American saga on screen. The authors of the script adapting Moberg's novel have chosen to focus on the fate of the Nilsson family - Carl Oskar, his wife Kristina and his younger brother Robert. The rest of the characters, including the route companions from 'The Emigrants', become at best secondary characters. We watch the struggle for survival and the hard work of the family that builds - with their own hands - a farm in Minnesota and a new destiny for themselves as American citizens. But the perspective is still that of immigrants, even when the action broadens its scope and describes the conflict between the newcomers and the US government on the one hand and the first inhabitants of America (the "Indians") on the other. Removed by fraud and violence from their lands to make room for the immigrants, the later respond with violence and cruelty, their revolt being repressed with even more violence.
The Indian war episode in the movie is the only time when the historical perspective is a little wider, the rest of the story taking place on a patch of land on the edge of a lake in Minnesota, and focusing on the relationships between Carl Oskar and Kristina, on their struggle to control nature, and on the adaptation of newcomers to the surrounding economy and society. The quality of the film consists primarily of the human dimension of the experience that the viewers live together with the characters. The heroes have to face the sometimes hostile nature, the older and newer locals and the rules of a world different from the one they lived in, but they also carry their own ballast of traditions, prejudices and religious conflicts imported from the old country. The resulting period landscape is truthful and impressive, this is the result of the vision of the director and of the wonderful acting of Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, two of Ingmar Bergman's favorite actors. Director Jan Troell patiently and painstakingly builds together all the blocks of a cinematic edifice that largely succeeds to pass the test of time despite the length and slow pace of the story which challenges modern viewers. The nature that surrounds the heroes, sometimes generous, sometimes threatening, also plays an important role and is filmed with the specific sensitivity of Scandinavian film-makers. Even if not all the elements of the story are equally interesting and important, and even if not all the characters have consistency and clear outlines, I remained after watching 'The New Land' with the impression of a human and historical document, of a solid and sensitive cinematographic work.
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