Taking Time to Feel: The Emigrants

The Emigrants (1971) | Svensk Filmindustri
Svensk Filmindustri

I gazed down at the familiar patterns of the lakes and forests of Finland slowly drawing away from me as my flight disappeared into the clouds. I didn’t fully understand what had made me want to leave my home country, so the feeling of excitement at what the future held was mixed with a sense of guilt I tried my best to suppress. Eleven years later, these final moments of my emigration feel more and more meaningful as I reflect on what it means to have left everything behind. It’s a brutal yet subtle process separating oneself from centuries of people, land, tradition, culture, and language. Often the longer the flight the more significant the change, but also the more necessary it is to take time to fully experience the transition and understand its importance.

It is difficult to imagine any other film portraying this in as nuanced and honest a manner as Jan Troell’s 191-minute epic, The Emigrants. The film, and its 202-minute follow up, The New Land, are based on three novels by Vilhelm Moberg revolving around a group of people who emigrate from a small Swedish province to North America in 1844. While the two films clearly form a whole, The Emigrants is unique in its own right, focusing almost entirely on the experience of leaving, a process we too often rush through in favor of the more rewarding experience of arriving at our destination.

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Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max Von Sydow) and his wife Kristina (Liv Ullmann) struggle between religious humility and wanting more from life. Karl Oskar curses the rocky, barren land he has inherited, while Kristina scolds him for blaspheming, believing firmly that, as good Christians, they should be grateful for what they have been given. When the idea of moving to North America is initially raised, Kristina resists—until multiple tragedies force her to question how fairly her gratefulness has been rewarded. When Karl Oskar goes to the dean of their small village to request formal permission to emigrate, he is accused of being “possessed by the spirit of discontent” and blinded by lies. This idea, of being discontented with one’s home country and wanting more from life, is often at the root of the feelings of guilt experienced by many emigrants: As one character accurately puts it, “The greenest meadows are the ones that lie furthest away.”

The rest of the film follows the couple as they prepare and eventually leave their home with a group of other peasants from neighboring areas. Throughout The Emigrants, Karl Oskar occupies a space somewhere between Kristina’s fears of leaving and his younger brother Robert’s (Eddie Axberg) naïve optimism regarding what awaits him. Robert is so focused on arriving that he ignores the present, going so far as to believe that his medical issues will disappear once he sets foot in America. This optimistic enthusiasm is no doubt a force that drives many of us towards change, but Robert seems to miss the opportunity for change by ignoring the experience of leaving. It is perhaps no surprise that we only really get to know him in the second film, when he has reached his destination and has to finally face reality.

In the short run it feels easier to chase a fantasy of a better life than to admit to the difficulties of the past or present, to deal with those internal and external struggles there and then, here and now. In a way, Robert never leaves Sweden; he never says goodbye nor mourns the loss of his parents or his country. He arrives in the United States an unchanged man, faced with a new set of circumstances he is unprepared for, unable to move on or to grow without first going to those difficult places of loss and grief. When he finally stops chasing a better future, it is already too late—he has created a past, filled with painful memories, that he is now unable to let go of. Our ability to process life changes is dependent on a variety of factors—and a satisfactory, well-processed ending for each chapter is not always possible.

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The Emigrants (1971) | Svensk Filmindustri

The Emigrants addresses some of the most difficult experiences of being human. Grief, guilt, dread and shame are only some of the feelings we see reflected on the faces of the emigrants as they prepare for their long journey. Kristina’s love of the land is apparent as she walks around the farm one last time, as though mourning a lost childhood, before running for a final go on the barn swing. Karl Oskar bows his head in shame as the dean tells him off for being unable to provide for his family in his native land and questions the welfare of the elderly parents he’s leaving behind. As Liv Ullmann described in an interview: “You say goodbye to everything which has been yours and you know you will never come back and it’s such a desperate situation.” Whether it be a country, a person, or a situation, leaving something significant behind, something that can never be retrieved, is an almost unbearable part of being alive.

When a film explores feelings this challenging, our natural tendency is to look away, to find an escape, perhaps by analyzing it on an intellectual level, or zoning out to think about something else. This might be possible with some films, but as The Emigrants goes on it soon becomes evident that you will need to face the storm with these characters. We are so used to films that rush us through emotions, showing us a clip of something real being felt, before quickly cutting to the next scene. A director, such as Troell, who is open to experiencing difficult emotions and sharing this with the audience, can only do so sensitively, and with time.

Perhaps the clearest example of this in The Emigrants is the 40 minutes we spend on the ship across the Atlantic. Under the deck, the ship is dirty, the travelers sick and plagued by parasites. There is no way out; during the storm, the door to the deck is firmly shut. Watching these scenes feels incredibly uneasy, especially the first time, if you’re unprepared for the duration. As the death toll rises and the sight of blood and vomit becomes ubiquitous, it feels as though there truly is no way out of the suffering. The misery and desperation of this journey is central to the overall experience of the emigrants, reflecting both what has been left behind and what is to become of them. In a way, it could be said that The Emigrants is a film about endings, touching on our most primitive existential fears. The characters’ separation from their native land is reminiscent of the mental separation we make from our parents in adolescence, or the grieving process of leaving behind the experience of childhood. Knowing there is no going back is one of the hardest things we have to accept in life, however bright the future may be.  

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The Emigrants (1971) | Svensk Filmindustri

Although faced with drastically different circumstances than what most Western emigrants currently face, Troell shows us the complex psychological processes involved in leaving one’s country in a manner that feels close to home. The moments where characters are preparing to leave are long and deliberate, the camera staying with the faces and sceneries far longer than we are accustomed to, lingering with each shot, almost as if it is equally difficult for us to leave them behind. As the carriage moves away from the farm, we see the worried faces of Karl Oskar and Kristina, the disappearing scenery and the parents they will never see again fading into the distance.

Staying with the characters through every step of their journey allows us the chance to consider what might happen next, and whether all of this is worth it. This small act of patience in Troell’s filmmaking allows us to become increasingly in tune with the characters and immersed in their lives, sharing even their most intimate thought processes as they take the huge risk of leaving home. This scene is one of the most enduring in The Emigrants, precisely because of its patience and raw vulnerability. According to those involved in the filming, there was much controversy around Troell’s decision to remove dialogue and keep the scene as minimal as possible. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the scene that best captures the pain of leaving was also experienced by many as the hardest day on set.

When used effectively, a longer runtime provides an opportunity for us to relax into a film, slowly breaking our defenses so that each scene is experienced with a growing openness to the feelings it carries along with it. This does not necessarily mean that a long film is more relaxing or pleasant, as there is a clear reason why we avoid such difficult emotions in the first place. However, experiencing them from the safety of our seats allows for a level of processing that can have a far-reaching impact on our emotional lives. A great summary of the importance of staying with painful emotions is captured in a touching monologue near the end of last year’s Call Me by Your Name, where the father tells his son: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!” The more we allow ourselves time to feel, even the painful feelings, the richer our emotional world and the more open we are to the greater joys of being human.

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The Emigrants is a personal film for me, not only because I left my native land, but because leaving was a process I rushed through at the time, and am now trying to understand. Much like Robert, my avoidance of meaningful goodbyes and mourning meant that it took longer for me to fully leave, or even to understand why I did so, and to grow as a person. I kept rushing ahead, never stopping, rarely allowing myself to feel in a timeless space. The Emigrants’ duration is a comforting reminder that there is time to feel. Much like a passenger’s long journey, it provides opportunities to stay in the moment, to bring together the past, the present, and the image of a potential future. It is only by grounding ourselves firmly in the film’s present that we begin to inhabit the feelings portrayed on screen. Significant life changes and losses can require us to go under the deck and suffer the death, the parasites, and the misery that can feel never-ending. This is what The Emigrants ultimately teaches us: not only to focus on what lies ahead, but to understand the significance of the journey as well.