Monday, February 20, 2017

DVR Diary: THE NEW LAND (Nybyggarna, 1972)

Jan Troell's two-part naturalist epic about Swedish immigrants in the U.S. was some kind of weird, only-in-the-Seventies phenomenon. Part one, The Emigrants, was nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film of 1971, and returned in a edited-down English dub (it played with subtitles instead in some markets) and got a flat-out Best Picture nomination in 1972, while New Land (the original title translates to "The Settlers") was up for Foreign-Language Film. Most freakishly considering the grim content of these films, they inspired an American New Land TV series in 1974, but at last reality reasserted itself and the show died a quick death opposite All in the Family on Saturday nights. Troell shot the two films simultaneously, adapting a tetralogy of novels by Vilhelm Moberg, Nybyggarna being the third book. New Land thus resumes the saga of Karl-Oscar Nielsen (Max von Sydow), his wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann) and his brother Robert (Eddie Axberg), who struggled their way from Sweden to Minnesota in The Emigrants. Like that film, New Land is episodic rather than strongly plotted, probably in keeping with the Moberg novels. So a lot of stuff happens. Robert grows impatient to strike out on his own and finally leaves for the California gold fields, only to return flush with cash. Kristina battles homesickness and keeps having kids until a doctor says to stop, but then keeps on trying. Karl-Oscar makes constant improvements to his farm, deals with new Swedish neighbors who threaten to bring the old country's religious conflicts to Minnesota with them, volunteers for the Civil War only to be rejected due to his limp, and sits out the suppression of a violent Sioux uprising to tend his ailing wife.

Troell may have been depending on his superstar leads, king and queen of Swedish thespians, to dominate the film, but the most interesting things happen to other people. To be specific, the most visually interesting things happen to other people, perhaps Troell felt he had to be more creative as a director when von Sydow and Ullman weren't on screen. The main case in point is the long flashback telling the truth of Robert and his buddy Arvid's (Pierre Lindstedt) misadventures en route to California. Scored with modernist percussion, the sequence is an increasingly delirious montage climaxing when the Swedes get lost in a desert chasing a mule. Arvid dies after drinking from a poisoned stream while Robert contracts yellow fever (or some variant on the blood-coughing Movie Disease) tending his dying Mexican guide. He strikes gold quite by accident by inheriting the guide's savings in gold coins, but foolishly exchanges them (I assume he thought they'd prove he didn't literally mine gold) for Southern Bank of Indiana notes that are worthless back in Minnesota, where he presents them to his brother and sister-and-law as triumphant gifts. While most of the two films are paced and shot so they seem like windows into the actual 19th century, Robert's story feels very much like a Seventies movie, and it's the closest Troell gets to making the Swedish equivalent of a spaghetti western. The other major sequence, the Sioux uprising, feels more like an American revisionist western of the period.That's not to say Troell sympathizes with the Sioux, though Karl-Oscar is told by another immigrant that, while he may not personally have stolen land from the Indians, he definitely purchased stolen land. Instead, the uprising is introduced with an atrocity sequence, the massacre of a Swedish family, that arguably tops anything similar in American films of the time with its gruesome exclamation point of an impaled human fetus. Then, skipping over the war against the renegades, Troell just about tops that, measured by pure horror rather than raw gruesomeness, with the mass hanging of a few dozen Sioux, one swing of an axe dropping the platform under all of them while the director holds the camera to let us watch them swing.

While the most spectacular sequences are only tangentially relevant to the Nielsen saga, Ullmann and von Sydow are powerful enough actors to make their family scenes just about as compelling as the more violent moments. If New Land has a unifying plot it's the Nielsen's struggle with a homesickness that Kristina never really overcomes, each horror or other setback merely renewing it. Her final scene gives the film a crowning irony. Kristina's astrakhan apple tree has at last blossomed, and Karl-Oscar offers her its first ripe fruit. Barely able to bite into it, she's enraptured by the smell of it. "I'm home!" she says, but the tragic truth is that, in her delirium, "home" still means back in Sweden. There's a further irony in the denouement: by the time of Karl-Oscar's old age, his children have fully made themselves at home in the new land, but in doing so they've ceased to be Swedes. An old neighbor has to write to the old country of Karl-Oscar's death because his children don't know the language. An American superpatriot might say that's just as it should be, but the loss that goes with the process is still tragic, while Troell, still observing from a Swedish perspective, leaves viewers questioning whether everything really was worth it. In a sense he isn't telling the full story because the Nielsen children get short shrift in the last half of the picture, but it may be the same way in Vilhelm Moberg's novels. In any event, Seventies cinema tended to question the purpose of almost every endeavor once taken for granted, and in that respect Troell's immigrant films are quintessential Seventies movies.

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