This is one of the year’s best movies.
STOCKHOLM, Sweden - The premiere of Jan Troell's "The Emigrants" was held in the Roda Kvarn, a cozy little jewelbox of a theater that was built in 1915, when Swedish silent films were finding an international audience. But Troell's film wasn't merely post-silent; it was post-Bergman, post-sex, post- the image of Swedish films in the 1960s.
And yet the "The Emigrants" is a traditional film in many ways, telling the story of a Swedish family which immigrated to America in the 1850s, and traveled inland by paddle-wheel steamer, horseback and foot to settle finally in Minnesota.
The screenplay is based on four novels by Vilhelm Mobergs which are immensely popular in Scandinavia, and at $1,400,000 the film is the most expensive ever made in Sweden. It is also the longest. "The Emigrants" is the first half of a story that will be completed in Troell's "Unto a Good Land," and together the films will span more than six hours. Despite the budget and length, the Swedish Film Institute hopes to get its investment back just in Scandinavia; the films will be combined and distilled down to about three hours for the world market.
Like every other film capital, Stockholm is in the midst of a movie depression these days. Films are hard to finance and there's an uncertainty about what the audience wants. "The Emigrants" is a Swedish "Love Story," in a way, a faithful retelling of the best-selling novels in Swedish history. At a time when many filmmakers, and even Hollywood itself, are experimenting with small, low-budgeted "personal films," Troell's work is a move in the opposite direction.
Significantly, it's the first Swedish film shot partly on an overseas location; the company spent six weeks in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and borrowed a showboat from the Minnesota State Centennial to transport its characters into the American frontier. And yet "The Emigrants" isn't exactly an epic, not in the way Hollywood would use the term. Troell has used the very best of Scandinavian actors - his leads are Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann - and shot the story in an intimate style.
"He doesn't speak very much, that's the first thing you notice about him," Miss Ullmann, talking about Troell, said the morning after the premiere. "He carries the camera himself and shoots every foot of his own film, and he just sort of follows along as you're doing something, seeming to take 20 shots of everything. At first, I wondered what was happening. But then you see the rushes, and you see he's got you off guard, he's got the little spontaneous things that create a character."
So many Hollywood films about immigrants have been done in the flag-waving, give-me-your-huddled-masses phony patriotic style that it's curiously new to see the theme handled by a foreign filmmaker. We forget most of the time that the immigrants were not faceless mobs of people with funny hats, pushing each other through Ellis Island in old newsreels, but millions of individuals who made brave and likely final decisions to pull up and take their chances on a dangerous ocean voyage in order to settle a wilderness.
"The Emigrants" gets this sense exactly, and Troell is probably the Swedish director best qualified for the attempt. Peter Cowie, the expert on Swedish cinema, considers Troell the best new Swedish director since Bergman, and a lot of the people I met in Stockholm seemed to agree.
Troell's "Here Is Your Life," a nostalgic story of a boy growing up before the First World War, won our Chicago Film Festival in 1967. Vilhelm Mobergs, who had steadfastly refused to allow his novels to be filmed, saw it and announced, "Finally I've found my director." Troell finished "Ole Dole Duff." which won the 1969 Chicago Film Festival under the title, "Eeny Meenie Miny Moe," and then started the task of translating the Mobergs saga into a manageable (or even unmanageable) film length.
Here he was helped by Bengst Forslund one of the key figures in post-war Swedish films. Forsland began as a critic, founded the Swedish film magazine, "Chaplin," and edited its first 50 issues before joining Svensk Filmindistri as a writer, director and, mostly, producer. He produced Troell's first two features, and joined him as co-author of the screenplay of "The Emigrants."
Troell doesn't like interviews and rarely gives them; he's said to be as quiet off the set as when he's shooting. But I was able to talk to Forslund the afternoon before the premiere, and I found him in slacks and a sweater in Svensk Filmindistri's library (appropriately enough, he was sitting next to a stack of "Chaplin" back issues).
He repeated his theory that "The Emigrants," despite its cost, can break even just in the Scandinavian market. "We're having a lot of troubles with American distributors," he said.
"They know Bergman, and that's it. Any other Swedish film has to have sex in it. That's the most disturbing development in the overseas outlook for Swedish films...
"We had started to build up an interest in Bergman, of course. And Bo Widerberg has gained an international reputation with 'Elvira Madigan' and, to a lesser extent, 'Adalen 31.' But then 'I Am Curious (Yellow)' came along and changed everything. Here in Sweden, 'I Am Curious' was seen as quite an interesting commentary on life in this country. I would never have predicted its success in America; I thought most people would walk out. But the nudity apparently fascinated American audiences.
"And so we've had all these sex films, and that's all the American distributors want from us, so people can waste their money. With a film like 'The Emigrants,' which should be of interest to a great many American ethnic groups, we've decided to avoid selling the North American rights until we find a distributor with the right sort of attitude. You can't go putting sex scenes into a classic about people in the 1850s...."
His Swedish crew had little difficulty shooting on location in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Forslund said. "We were warned we might have union problems, but all they did was tell us to hire one electrician, and he turned out to be excellent. The difficulty was in finding unspoiled locations, I must say. We wanted virgin forests and unspoiled lakes, and everywhere there were roads and summer cottages and Coke signs."
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