by Pauline Kael
Seeing The New Land a year after The Emigrants is like picking up a novel you had put down the day before. The story comes flooding back, and what you saw in the first half—the firm, deep-toned preparation—“pays off” in the second half. In The Emigrants we saw why a group of Swedes in the mid-nineteenth century left their land, and at the close, in Minnesota, Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) found the rich earth he had been looking for and rested under a tree in the wilderness. In The New Land he brings his wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), and family to the spot he selected, and begins to build a house and start a farm. The Emigrants had that great push to the new country, but the emigration was a foregone conclusion; The New Land is open-ended — full of possibilities. Both halves are wonderful. We meet up again with all the survivors of that ocean trip, and gradually we get the answers to our questions about whether they would find what they hoped for. For Karl Oskar the answer is yes; for Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), a “fallen woman” in Sweden, yes, also. But for Kristina the answer is a mixed one; she would never have emigrated on her own, and she misses what she left behind more than she dares to admit. And for Karl Oskar’s younger brother, the dreamer Robert (Eddie Axberg), whose adolescence had been destroyed by indentured labor, and his friend the burly lummox Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt) the answer is no. If there is anything lacking in this film, it is a sense of what Karl Oskar’s and Kristina’s children carry over from their parents’ past in Sweden. (Could this have been intimated in the footage cut from the American version?) We are told that they forget Swedish, but not told what they remember and pass along. However, we do see the discovery of what will become part of their heritage as Americans: that the land Karl Oskar bought from the United States Government was stolen land.
There is nothing glib and no piousness, no portentousness. Karl Oskar, the practical man, doggedly heroic, isn’t romanticized, and Kristina’s narrowness of vision isn’t used against her; rather, we see the special beauty — the shyness and the awareness of her limitations — that it gives her. Maybe because of the broad sweep of the story, and the way the characters are seen in terms of natural forces, The New Land often reminds one of the work of the masters of the silent film. Here, too, everything seems to be on the screen for the first time. Although Jan Troell, the director, cinematographer, editor, is in command of the modern vocabulary of film techniques, he’s unencumbered by the vices of commercial films: all those thousands of forms of telegraphic emphasis, most of them inherited from the theater, that commercial films have done to death. Troell shows his debt to movie history in only one section (an effective contrast), when he uses a stylized shorthand form for Robert’s fevered recollections of his experiences in the West searching for gold: a horror dream pounding in his ears.
The big events — the saving of a child’s life during a freezing storm, a mass hanging of Sioux braves — aren’t built up to; they come and go, without the penny-dreadful tricks that cheapen most film epics. Troell takes in the details of work, the quarrels with neighbors, the great, grave head of Karl Oskar’s ox in its last moment, Kristina handing some starving Indian women a piece of meat, or cleaning her baby’s bottom and apologetically smiling at onlookers while hurriedly wiping her hands on some leaves. He is more open and generous than the other Swedish directors whose work we see — so generous that the small flaws are canceled out. There is nothing prosy in Troell’s large, steady embrace; he has a sense of the justice owed to people and the homage owed to nature. Together, The Emigrants and The New Land offer the pleasures of a big novel with a solid spine. Troell has done what the Americans should have done in Hawaii but couldn’t, because all our bad Hollywood habits got in the way. Max von Sydow was as remarkable in Hawaii as he is here; the difference is that he blends into Troell’s film. And Liv Ullmann, pale and fragile, intense and determined, has a delicacy that was never evident in Ingmar Bergman’s hot-ice universe. Troell is a film master whose films are overflowing yet calm and balanced; they’re rapturously normal.
The New Yorker, October 15, 1973