In case anyone is keeping track, I’ve been looking for this film for over seven years. Enjoy.
The lives this film lays before us are not for the faint of heart. Oskar (Max von Sydow) and his wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann) are at the mercy of their land. If their crops fail, they won’t be able to feed their growing number of children. And poor Kristina tells Oscar she doesn’t want to get pregnant again, but over and over again she does. Losing a child is a sobering, awful chapter. Robert (Eddie Axberg) is a young man with his head in the clouds, but the repercussions of slacking off are a violent encounter that may cost him his hearing. Mixed among them in Sweden is a corrupt parson, a brother fleeing from religious persecution and Robert’s pudgy farmhand friend who lashes out when he can’t hold his liquor.
The real excitement comes as the family sets out for America. Their long horse and buggy ride is a breeze compared to the weeks at sea and the perils in the American wilderness. Scenes on the ship are most memorable and engaging. The way the camera moves to simulate the ship rocking made me feel seasick from my couch. The rough night that even makes young, strong Robert sick is the worst. In their sleeping quarters, the walls run with fresh vomit. Between lice, seasickness, vomiting and shitting blood, I’m surprised they didn’t lose more passengers. Every time a passenger is lost, it doesn’t get easier to toss them overboard into the sea.
One scene that stuck with me long after the film was one towards the end. Oskar and his family are nearly to Minnesota (which is a lot farther away than they thought), and are about to board a riverboat. Kristina asks him where their daughter is. He doesn’t have her, like she thought. A frantic search breaks out along the river the woods and into the small settlement they just passed through. The parents search for one child as the other two are on the riverboat about to depart. I freak out if my kid wanders to the next aisle in Target. I was a wreck from my couch.
While The Emigrants is a long film that is really just leading up to a sequel (The New World), the expert story telling led by what we see is masterful. Sure, there are some moments where the film like a very 70s indie film (not a bad thing, but very dated). However, the believable characters and their strife feel universal and capture our natural curiosity.
“It will be better once we get to America.”