The Emigrants and The New Land
In its native America, the Criterion Collection earned its reputation for desirable, extras-packed editions of arthouse classics over whole decades, disc by disc. When it expanded to Region 2 in April this year, it wasn’t an unknown quantity – cinephiles with region-free players had been spreading the word for years. As we look forward to a second year of Criterion in the UK, though, it’s worth looking back at how it positioned itself for British buyers, particularly with regards to more niche titles like Jan Troell’s duology The Emigrants and The New Land.
The Emigrants and The New Land aren’t that obscure. Aided by a contentious edit by Warner Brothers which cut out an astonishing 84 minutes – a whole feature! – from the two films, they were fairly successful in America, with both nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature at the Oscars. The Emigrants was even nominated for Best Picture, duking it out with Cabaret and The Godfather. But no-one could fairly deny they present a challenge for the casual viewer. They last, in total, for six and a half hours, and while they have intermissions they also seem designed to work as one continuous experience. The dream viewing experience would be to watch them at a cinema in one day with regular intervals.
In the absence of that, these Criterion editions are as good a way to experience Troell’s films as you can get. They come with the label’s usual well-considered extras, including a 2005 retrospective documentary about the epic year-long shoot for the two films, as well as interviews with Troell and star Liv Ullman. The real reason to buy this set, though, is the Blu-Ray restoration. Troell’s films are vivid portraits of nature in all its beauty and hardship, and this needs to be seen as clearly and crisply as possible. His summer scenes rival Malick in their pastoral bliss, his scenes of Minnesota winters make The Revenant look like a film about a mild frost. When Ullman’s Kristina Nilsson touches down in America she lies down and runs her fingers through the grass, overwhelmed by the wonder of finding herself on a different continent. As she does so, Troell’s zooms, sharp cuts and sensuous close-ups – he served as editor and cinematographer as well as directing – let you share her wonder.
Ullman, who rates this role as her all-time favourite, is a natural, timeless movie star. At various points in these films her enormously emotive face recalls Amy Adams, Felicity Jones or Jessica Chastain, the latter of whom she would direct in a 2014 adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Yet she disappears completely into the ensemble, and into Troell’s wide landscape compositions. So does the actor playing her husband, despite being arguably the most famous living Swedish thespian – Max von Sydow. Von Sydow and UIlman, like all of the cast, understand that Troell is making a film without favour, a film about community and history and countries rather than characters and movie stars.
That makes it sound rather dry, and some viewers might prefer The New Land for at least focusing more solidly on a smaller group of characters, and containing more dramatic incident. For this reviewer, The Emigrants was slightly better, taking a very simple three-act structure – Sweden, then the voyage, then America – and improvising around it. Ullman recalls that the film-making process barely felt like they were being directed so much as they simply had to be in the situation until Jan had found the scene. The result is strangely compelling even when it should be tedious. Returning to it after a break, I found myself wondering whether I was really up for another hour or two of this – then being utterly entranced, to the point of hypnosis, by another scene of logging or farming.
That said, if Jan Troell the director is languid and dreamy, Jan Troell the editor isn’t above the odd sharp cut or sudden montage to jolt the audience forward. It’s evidence of how utterly in control of his effects he was on these, only his third and fourth films. If there was anything in him which was intimidated – by the scale of the production, by adapting Vilhelm Moberg’s bestselling novels, by the reputations of Ullman and von Sydow, or simply by doing justice to this extraordinary moment in Swedish history when a full fifth of the country left for America – it is utterly invisible in the finished product.
So Criterion’s courage in putting these two films out as part of their initial foray into the British market is, perhaps, a reflection of the courage the films themselves exhibit. If Troell’s intimate, unassuming epics at first appear to sit oddly alongside the popular favourites (Easy Rider), vintage Hollywood gems (Only Angels Have Wings) and cult classics (Grey Gardens) that made up the rest of their 2016, they are an easy match in terms of quality and significance. If you already love Troell’s films, this will be a high point of the year for you; if you don’t know them, and you want to see films that draw you inside history rather than merely dramatise it, you should be ready to fall in love.