The New Land (Nybyggarna)

Director: Jan Troell
Screenplay: Jan Troell & Bengt Forslund (based on the novel by Vilhelm Moberg)
Stars: Max von Sydow (Karl Oskar), Liv Ullmann (Kristina), Eddie Axberg (Robert), Pierre Lindstedt (Arvid), Monica Zetterlund (Ulrika), Hans Alfredson (Jonas Petter), Allan Edwall (Danjel), Peter Lindgren (Samuel Nöjd)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1972
Country: Sweden
The Emigrants / The New Land Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The New LandJan Troell’s The New Land (Nybyggarna), the second half of his six-and-a-half-hour cinematic diptych about a group of 19th-century Swedish pilgrims leaving their hardscrabble homeland for the promises of North America, picks up right where its predecessor, The Emigrants (1971), ended. Having made the arduous journey from rural Småland, where life as a peasant farmer was virtually impossible due to both the rigid class system and the rocky terrain, to the wilds of the Minnesota territory, the pilgrims have staked their claim to the land and began to carve out a new life for themselves. If The Emigrants was about the characters fulfilling their dreams of leaving their old lives for something potentially better, The New Land is about their slow, sometimes rocky metamorphosis into Americans.

Once again, the principal characters are Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann), who left their family farm in order to own their own land in America. Karl Oskar is determined and resolutely self-sufficient, while Kristina is a strong maternal presence in both her Christian devotion and her sometimes Job-like patience (although, as in The Emigrants, she loses her cool at one point when it is demanded that she cease being friends with a woman who married the wrong kind of Christian). Their family continues to expand as Kristina has more children, but Karl Oskar’s dream of owning and working his own soil seems to be coming to fruition, as he builds the family successively bigger homes and has to answer to no one but himself. The other characters with whom they journeyed from Sweden, including Kristina’s brother Danjel (Allan Edwall), who left due to religious persecution from the dominant Lutheran church, and Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), a former prostitute and one of Danjel’s followers, become more secondary; although they are still present throughout much of the film, they tend to recede to the background.

This is not the case, however, with Karl Oskar’s headstrong younger brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) and his best friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt). Ever the dreamer who sees nothing but silver linings, Robert becomes fixated on leaving the new family farm and chasing fortune in California mining for gold. Much of the film unfolds during the early 1850s, the heyday of the California “gold rush,” and early on Robert and Arvid head West. Given the prevalence of death throughout the two films, young and old alike, it would not be surprising to learn that Robert had died out in California, but he reemerges years later, looking sickly, but holding a sack full of money, the explanation of which is slowly revealed during a series of jagged flashbacks that chronicles his and Arvid’s journey out West and what they found there. Troell, who acted as both cinematographer and editor in addition to being the director and co-writing the adaptation of novelist and historian Vilhelm Moberg’s four-novel series, stages Robert’s stories as a kind of experimental film-within-the-film, shooting primarily with unsteady handheld cameras, intercutting frames to produce a hypnotic, surreal effect, and eliminating all dialogue in favor of a strange, percussive jazz score by Georg Oddner. The effect is alternately fascinating and nightmarish, with the overall impact being profoundly tragic.

Tragedy is writ large in The New Land, as The Emigrants’ closing shot of Karl Oskar resting beneath a beautiful tree after having staked his claim to a perfect piece of land—the literal embodiment of all he and his family had suffered to attain—is deeply complicated by the hardships involved in forging a new life from untrammeled nature in the raw. There is the literal, physically backbreaking work of clearing land, building houses and barns, supplying food, and earning money to buy necessities. One of the film’s most memorable scenes finds Karl Oskar and his young son caught in a sudden snowstorm while plowing, which forces the father to slaughter the family’s ox and gut it to provide a place of safety for his child. It is a grand, visceral moment in which a father is willing to do literally anything to protect his child (the ox, after all, is not just an animal, but an absolute necessity for their survival as farmers, and its loss will be felt). In addition to the physical work, there is also the cultural work of assimilating into a new social order that moves differently, holds different values, and speaks different languages. The New Land is not so much a rebuke to the ideal of America as a cultural melting pot as it is testament to the fact that the melting and merging of cultures is a long, difficult, sometimes ungainly process that, in the end, produces “Americans,” but Americans of many different stripes.

The film also grapples with the place of Native Americans in a rapidly changing landscape, particularly the Sioux, who had been forcibly relocated to Minnesota, only to find the U.S. government selling parcels of their land to the new settlers like Karl Oskar and his family. Troell is clearly sympathetic to the Sioux’s plight, and they are depicted primarily as people who have been dragged against their will to the lowest levels of existence, forced to subsist in ways that are frequently beneath their dignity. Karl Oskar and the other white settlers are generally friendly to them and share resources, but events eventually transpire that result in gruesome bloodshed. Troell, a deeply poetic filmmaker who is able to express depths of feeling and thought with images as simple as hands working on a bowl, seems somewhat uncomfortable with the violence, and some of it is staged and shot with an awkwardness that undermines its visceral impact. Aside from one disturbing shock cut, the moments of outright violence feel decidedly out of step with the film’s better, more intimate scenes.

“Intimate” is a good word to describe both The New Land and The Emigrants, as Troell is able to bring us deep into the lived experiences of his characters while also maintaining the epic scope of their physical and existential journey. The combined running time of the two films is immense—more than six and a half hours—but the investment is worth it because Troell uses every minute to enhance our empathy with all the characters, even those who are at odds. He is not afraid to depict good people acting badly or to show empathy for those who are seemingly undeserving. Troell is a profoundly humane director, and his feeling for character and environment is what makes these two films so powerful in their depiction of the immigrant experience, something that is fundamental to the history of human society and, as we see today, prone to simplistic generalizations and demonic politicizing. Troell shows us the human face of the ordeal, balancing tragedy with comedy and intimacy with scope in a way that few filmmakers have accomplished.

The Emigrants / The New Land Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-ray 2-Disc Set

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioSwedish Linear PCM monaural
Subtitles English
  • Introduction by theater and film critic John Simon
  • To Paint With Pictures (2005) making-of documentary
  • Video conversation between film scholar Peter Cowie and director Jan Troell
  • Video interview with actor Liv Ullmann
  • Trailers
  • Essay by critic Terrence Rafferty
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 9, 2016

    Both films look absolutely stunning in their new high-definition transfers. This is the first time The Emigrants and The New Land have been made available on home video in the U.S. in their original uncut, Swedish-language versions since their laserdisc releases by Image Entertainment in the 1990s (1994 Warner Home Video VHS releases had the shortened 151-minute and 161-minute versions, respectively, both of which were dubbed into English). Each film is housed on its own Blu-ray disc, thus maximizing bitrate for each. The films were transferred and restored from the original 35mm camera negatives by AB Svensk Filmindustri, which did an amazing job maintaining the films’ celluloid feel. There is a good presence of natural grain in both transfers, and the detail throughout is wonderful in conveying the rough textures of the clothes, the brittle surface of ice, and the roughness of working hands. The films’ widely varying color palettes are beautifully rendered, from the slightly desaturated look of the Swedish countryside at the beginning of The Emigrants, to the intense, lush greens of the Minnesota wilds, to the electric blue sky over the western deserts in The New Land. There are no signs of dirt or damage or wear. The original monaural soundtracks were transferred at 24-bit from the 17.5mm print masters and digitally restored, which has left them clean and very pleasant. Troell doesn’t use a lot of music, but when he does, it’s for good reason, and the Linear PCM lossless soundtrack is quite good in reproducing the film’s numerous musical styles, which vary from full orchestral music, to asynchronous jazz drumming, to Native American singing. Dialogue and sound effects all sound clear and are free of aural artifacts and ambient hiss.
    The supplements are spread evenly across the two discs. On The Emigrants Blu-ray there is a short introduction by theater and film critic John Simon, who was an major champion of the films when they were originally released in the U.S.; a trailer; and To Paint With Pictures, an excellent 57-minute documentary produced by Svensk Filmindusti in 2005 about the making of the films. It features some behind-the-scenes footage and photos shot during the production, as well as interviews with director Jan Troell, actors Liv Ullmann, Pierre Lindstedt, Hans Alfredson, and Eddie Axberg, producer/co-screenwriter Bengt Forslund, script supervisor Katinka Faragó, and composer Georg Oddner, among others. On The New Land Blu-ray we have a trailer and two newly recorded interviews: one with Troell conducted by film scholar and Criterion mainstay Peter Cowie (35 min.) and one with Ullmann (24 min.).

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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