Reviews of The Emigrants (1949) and related work

The Emigrants (1949Text)

Vilhelm Moberg (writer).

Emigration from Sweden to the USA ca. 1850.

Moberg’s epic is an extended, more realistic version of earlier stories about the dream and reality of Swedish emigration to America. Like those earlier stories, tall tales (lies) are both foundational to the industry of emigration and a staple of lower-class entertainment, because lies are cheap. See for example Eyvind Johnson’s Se dig inte om (1936), which features several boastful liars and “Sagan om Brasiliens land”, a compressed epic of a family’s traumatic emigration to Brazil.

References here: Som en ateist läser bibeln, “Bödaupproret år 1850” (1998).

text fiction

The Emigrants (1971Moving picture, 151 minutes)

Powerless farmers on overpopulated Swedish soil in the 1840s and ’50s work hard and get nothing for it, falling deeper into debt as every harvest from their plot is diminished by too much rain, or too little, while there are more and more mouths to feed. In church they hear only that one’s betters are appointed by Yahweh: everything is as it should be. One farmer’s teenage brother does a bit of reading and despairs at a harsh adult life as a farmhand, while his fellow worker is plagued by rumours of having fucked a cow. The same farmer’s wife is related to a Christian fundamentalist who is persecuted for performing religious services for various rejects of society, including a hot- headed former hooker. When things get bad enough, they all decide to go to America, which they hear is a land of milk and honey. The journey is long and hard, and the results not quite what they expected.

A naturalist epic of 19th-century European emigration to America. 191 minutes plus intermission. Suitably unsentimental, except for the focus on Ulrika’s compassion. The inconsistency of the accents is also a significant lapse. The novel’s tall tales are thankfully diminished here.

References here: Everlasting Moments (2008).

moving picture adaptation fiction

‣‣ The New Land (1972Moving picture, 102 minutes)

Seen in 2015.

Even better than the first film. Von Sydow is perfect as Karl Oskar, whereas the Norwegian Ullman continues to butcher the Smålandian dialect. In 2014 I saw the stage musical version of the original series of novels, where both Kristina and Ulrika were played with Finnish accents, similarly to my dismay.

Troell’s films are less focused on sex than Moberg’s novels, and less focused on religion and romantic love than the musical. They’re brilliantly naturalistic. If anything, they seem to emphasize racism, as they should in a story of emigration, but Troell is also very good with the characterization of the leads: flawed, ignorant, bigoted, brought together by geography rather than destiny. Troell extracts his drama from the representativeness of their lives, as opposed to a template larger than life.

moving picture sequel fiction