The Emigrants (1971)

Thank God Almighty for the Criterion Collection.

No, I am not secretly a PR person for this company, but I still need to express a bit of gratitude, for if it weren’t for them, chances are high that I’d never have had the opportunity to view this film in its original, Swedish-spoken glory.


Jan Troell’s 1971 film, The Emigrants, has been near the top of my ‘must see’ list for at least a year, yet I was losing hope I’d ever get to watch the Swedish version (for the record, TCM did air the English dubbed version in 2015, but I wanted to see the original Swedish-language version if possible – except with select anime that i grew up watching dubs of and, therefore, have a very strong nostalgic tie to those voices).

Despite earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress (Liv Ullmann), and Foreign Language film, The Emigrants seems to have been all but forgotten by most. Of course it never stood a chance to win any Oscars against competition that included the exalted masterpiece The Godfather, and the Awards-sweeping Cabaret. Even so, it is often sad to see films such as this which gets such warm reception during its release to be not only forgotten, but also nearly impossible to obtain.

To summarize, The Emigrants is a long, slow-burn of a film about a group of Swedes from a religious community who decide to journey to America in the 19th century.

It provides a brutal, intimate look at what hardships people faced which drove them to America, as well as the trials and tribulations they had to contend with during the actual travelling and arrival in the new land. It is also based on the first two novels of a series of four by Vilhelm Moberg (The Emigrants & Unto a Good Land). 

Most of the story centers on members of a particular Swedish family who face a wide array of hardships, leaving them desperate for change. They eventually take the leap of faith and make the Ocean-wide journey to the United States.

There is husband (Karl Oscar – played by Max Von Sydow), and wife (Kristina – played by Liv Ullmann), who struggle to survive in their native land. Their own hardships reach their zenith with a horribly emotional and heart-breaking tragedy, and it is following this that even hesitant Kristina decides that “we cannot stay here.”

Karl’s younger farm-hand brother Robert (Eddie Axberg), as well as one of his friends, want to leave as well due to their abusive boss and his wife.  

Another member of the family, Danjel (Allan Edwall, who was in another one of my favorite films, Fanny and Alexander), is a devoutly religious man. He believes the community’s religious elders that persecute him are not following the bible adequately. He joins the trek as well, bringing with him his wife as well as one of his strongest, most devout followers who happens to be a reformed prostitute.

These individuals, and many others, feel the only chance at improving their lot in life is to leave the land of their ancestors and head to America, which they seem to derive their image of through fantastical, pro-America advertisements meant to draw in immigrants.

Death and danger continue to haunt the Swedish troupe as they hit the seas. You can feel the grime and dirt and filth, as well as the scurvy that spreads like wildfire among the ship’s crew and adds to the tension and tragedy as an increasing number of people end up perishing before they can even set their sight on the land for which they abandoned their homeland to reach. This ensures that though the film is long, it will nevertheless leave you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.

This film also does a fantastic job illustrating just how much bravery it took for these people to leave everything that they had behind and journey into the unknown for a life that could be better, but could also be much worse. The shot of Kristina looking back at the family farm, where Karl Oscar’s parents remain standing outside to watch the younger members of their family leave (presumably forever – never to be seen again) is both heartbreaking and invigorating.

Make no mistake, The Emigrants is a very long film that may require one to break apart into segments (my own millennial-brand of A.D.D. made me have to pause this movie a couple times). It is also, however, immensely powerful due to Troell’s decision to implement simple direction that allows a viewer to fully appreciate the acting and, through said acting, grow close to the characters. It is a movie that spans a great deal of time and distance of land, but never for one moment loses its intimacy.

People need to see this movie, if only to bring it back to a public that is all-but-unaware of its existence. It is over three hours and is not filled with explosions or giant CGI landscapes or quippy dialogue, but now that it is available on DVD I view it as almost essential viewing for those looking to experience a film that succeeds in both being simply intimate, yet epic in scope.

Score: 5 out of 5

Sources consulted:

‘The Emigrants’ imdb

‘The Emigrants’ wikipedia (also got image from there)

I also posed this review to my Letterboxd account here


This entry was posted in 1970's, 1971, Film Review, Foreign, Foreign Language Film, Jan Troell, Liv Ullmann, Max Von Sydow, Swedish film, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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