THE EMIGRANTS (1972): A Retrospective Review


The term “epic” is thrown around a lot when referring to Jan Troells The emigrants (1972). Despite a worldwide adventure with dozens of people, the film cleverly narrows its focus to deliver an intimate story about a family hoping to live the American dream. Nominated for five Oscars, only the third foreign-language film was nominated for Best Picture. The business has only happened 11 times in total, but three times in the last four years.


Max von Sydow plays the main role as Karl Oskar Nilsson, a Swedish farmer living in the province of Småland. Karl Oskar marries Kristina Johansdotter (Liv Ullmann). As their family grows, the group struggles with bad weather, field conditions and poor harvests, leaving them hungry and in debt.
The emigrant couple
Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in ‘THE EMIGRANTS’ (1972)
Karl Oskar’s younger brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) is overworked and beaten on a separate farm and dreams of emigrating to the United States. Following a family tragedy, Kristina and Karl Oskar decide to emigrate with Robert and his friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt), Kristina’s uncle Danjel (Allan Edwall) and a number of Danjel’s religious followers, including the former prostitute Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), and her daughter Elin (Eva-Lena Zetterlund).
The emigrants is divided into two separate halves. The first half takes place in Sweden and offers the necessary background history to kick-start emigration. The second half is a difficult journey. The more than three-hour driving time is more than justified by trials and tribulations. That does not mean that the film fails. Karl Oskar and Kristina meet, get married and have a child within minutes of playing time.


There is a constant push-pull between the desire for a satisfying life and the desire to stay in your home country. Karl Oskar wants more for his family and himself, while Kristina recognizes the dangers and insecurities of the journey. In addition, Kristina believes that the family struggles are due to Karl Oskar’s irreligious attitudes.
The emigrant boat
Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow in ‘EMIGRANTENE’ (1972)
Freedom of religion also plays a big role. Danjel is persecuted and banished because of his rejection of the official religion. His rebuke of the local rector and priests is just and justified, but he is still not in a position of power. He is turned away from his country and forced to flee. The whole journey is tempered with a godly light for Danjel.
Every attack of seasickness, disease and death is a sign that Daniel must turn his eyes to God.
Troell saturates the idyllic Sweden in bright yellow colors when optimism is high, but turns down the color and turns up the sad when it goes hard. In the same way, gray and brown soak up the journey of emigration. Headgear regularly hides the bright colors in Karl Oskar and Kristina’s hair. This not only suffocates their lives, but masks their identity in a country that does not know them.
The emigration itself is patient and precise. The scenes on the emigration boat give a real sense of claustrophobia and desperation. These people do not want to be there, but that is the price of the potential for a better life.
Liv Ullman in ‘THE EMIGRANTS’ (1972)


Ullmann and von Sydow are the focus of the narrative, but that does not mean they are the most dynamic. In fact, they both drastically underplay the roles. Karl Oskar is thrown into this leadership role, and von Sydow delivers a calm silence. He rarely raises his voice, even though he is the one in charge. Even when he reassures his sometimes hysterical wife, he rarely rises above a whisper. He leads by his presence rather than his voice.
Ullmann (Oscar-nominated for the role) is the eternal concern. She cares about her children, her body, the danger of the trip, the inevitability of death and everything in between. Ullmann’s greatness lies in not letting that worry seep into annoyance. Every concern is justified. When she gets the chance to scream in pain or in anger, her eyes light up and jump through the screen. She is completely captivating at every turn.
Axberg is the most likeable character in The emigrants. His youthful appearance and gracious demeanor immediately make the audience happy with his situation. In addition, he is also kind to others, especially the constantly ignored Arvid. Edwall is just as captivating as a man with a crisis of faith, tested by tragedy.
Emigrant tongues
Eva-Lena Zetterlund and Eddie Axberg in ‘EMIGRANTERNE’ (1972)
Zetterlund gives my favorite appearance as a woman who is notorious for her exploits, but who bears it as a sign of honor. She never appears ashamed and appreciates the role Danjel has given her. She is the most dynamic presence of the other passengers.


Between Troell’s steady hand and the amount of great achievements, The emigrants shows the sacrifices people are willing to make to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Although the film is understated, it is an effective statement about the number of emigration that still resonates today.

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