A Swedish immigrant family struggle to establish a new life for themselves in the forest of Minnesota in the mid 19th Century.A Swedish immigrant family struggle to establish a new life for themselves in the forest of Minnesota in the mid 19th Century.A Swedish immigrant family struggle to establish a new life for themselves in the forest of Minnesota in the mid 19th Century.
The story-telling a little more disjoint in this film, giving us bits of life in America almost as if in chapters, some parts of which we see once and then are never mentioned again. One example is the family's neighbors chastising them for their friendship with the former prostitute Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), who has married a Baptist minister and converted to that faith, which they see as sacrilegious, and failing to note the irony in this view, given their own persecution prior to emigrating. It's a powerful scene, but nothing more comes of it. Similarly, we see a brief interval where Karl-Oscar (Max von Sydow) faces the possibility of going off to fight in America's Civil War after having been in the country for less than ten years, a perspective which was fascinating to me, but after he's rejected because of a limp, we hear nothing more about the distant fighting. Maybe this is like life.
Director Jan Troell is more daring stylistically during the flashback sequence involving the brother (Eddie Axberg), who goes off with a friend (Pierre Lindstedt) to try to find gold in California. Without spoiling anything, the surreal way he portrays this amplifies their harrowing ordeal, and I liked how the story behind how he returns with so much money is revealed.
The cast is wonderful, led by von Sydow and Liv Ullmann who have several great scenes. In one of the difficult moments, we see the attitude towards women in the period shown when she's told that getting pregnant again might prove fatal to her given past complications. She feels immense sadness over this because she feels like she wouldn't be a wife if this is true, and in turn, that she wouldn't be able to sleep with her husband if she couldn't risk pregnancy.
Unlike 'The Emigants', there is acknowledgment that the land these Swedish-Americans are farming was stolen from the Native Americans, but this is a film that is definitely told from a European perspective. Karl-Oscar defends himself, and we sympathize with him - he had no part in any of that, paid the government for the land, and has put in a lot of toil. We don't see any of the atrocities that the white settlers or the government committed, but we see some horrifying things the native Sioux do when backed into a corner and starving. One of the acts done after the killing of an entire white family is so brutally heinous, cruel, and disgusting that it seems to justify the mass hanging of Native Americans which follows. The events seem to be based loosely on the events of the Sioux Uprising in 1862, which led to the mass hanging of 38 Sioux in Minnesota. Still, I give the film credit for directly confronting the moral dilemma, though I struggle, wondering if there is an element here that is in a small way accepting one of America's two original sins. The film successfully strives for honesty through the lens of this family, achieves that, shows us just how hard life was in this period, and lets the viewer then grapple with what it all means. It made me think of the quote from Joyce, History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
- Aug 24, 2019