I still have no idea where Småland is without looking at a map, and even when I do, it’s not immediately obvious what I’m looking at. I’m told it’s an historical province located in the Southwest of modern-day Sweden. I’m also told that provinces have no administrative functions but serve as cultural heuristics for fellow countryfolk. Outside Småland, Swedes have certain opinions of Smålandians. Folks who live in Jönköping and beyond, or whose heritage emanates from the adjectives that describe its place, Småland is something else. It really makes one think about what’s important when it comes to identity and place. I’m curious if assumptions from 50, 100, 200 years ago still hold. Which brings us to place, identity and otherhood in 1971’s The Emigrants: American critics saw enough in this movie to nominate it for Best Picture even though I’m sure most of them couldn’t pick out Småland on a map, let alone Chisago County, where our characters wound up after a very long journey. (To them and, at over 3 hours, to us.)
It’s curious because, to this point, the Academy hadn’t paid very much attention to non-English speaking film, outside Best Foreign Language film. In 41 years up to the 1971 awards, The Emigrants was only the 3rd non-English film to grab a nomination: Z in 1969 and La Grand Illusion in 1937, and still one of only 13 ever. The trajectory of The Emigrants and its language-successor, Cries & Whispers feels very “anointing the other,” in a quest to promote diversity. This pattern was self-indulgent and short-lived: the next foreign-language film to earn a Best Picture nomination was 1995’s Il Postino and 2019’s Parasite was the first foreign-language winner. What do these examples prove? Very little, except that if we look even a little bit outside American cinema, there’s dozens of other countries’ film industries to dig into, which all have incredible origin stories. The theory of American film exceptionalism is more a story of quantity over quality.
The Emigrants traces a story of survival against many odds, and in a way, this story follows the romanticized notion of white, American westward expansion–Manifest Destiny–by stacking the odds against white, Swedish immigrants who didn’t speak the language or have a real sense of the cost of the journey, either mentally, socially, or fatally. It’s meant to demonstrate a pivotal part of Swedish diaspora. The Emigrants brought into focus the very real issue of access to land and opportunity. The geography in Småland couldn’t provide the necessary resources for Karl-Oskar and Kristina Nilsson’s family to survive–forget flourish. So this family and a ragtag of follow-ons made the typical and dangerous journey to the Far West. The entrepreneurial spirit is, here, less borne from a desire to maximize opportunities that we currently associate with emigration. For the Nilssons, the choice was binary: stay and die or leave and…also likely die. The long odds gave The Emigrants its true conflict (man vs. nature). There was no guarantee or even, really, hope that this crew from the tiny town in Sweden would find any success at all in Minnesota. In another iteration, probably more representative of the truth, the Nilssons and their friends likely all die in transit.
But The Emigrants is a story about geography, and luck. Any number of factors of place would have set the trajectory in motion any number of ways. This particular story, set in 1844, follows the family from Ljuder parish, a real place now known as Lessebo, which today has a population just over 3000, to the Chisago Lakes area, which today has a population of about 12000 people. This is small-stakes stuff to a wide audience, but it’s irresistibly human to an individual, who might see shades of themselves in any one of these characters. We realize that geography is more than a tract of land, that it can represent more: hope and an unknown future that hasn’t yet completely collapsed. It’s a worthwhile muse on this experience for an audience that, still today, wouldn’t be able to pick Småland out of an IKEA.
Recently, 2020’s Minari filled the spiritual void of the American Dream narrative that’s lost a lot of luster in the past (at least) two decades. As the Internet has opened the world, it’s also opened up lots of hypocrisy behind who’s allowed to succeed in the United States under the rigged auspices of “meritocracy.” It was almost certainly easier in 1844, when the Nilssons would have landed in Minnesota, but still, who’s to say these fortune-seekers didn’t displace another group that had already claimed stewardship of the land. The thing about land is that it’s scarce and ownership is a construct of modern capitalism. Geographers will tell us that their discipline is about more than lines on a map, and we should believe them.
Unfortunately, there was zero chance that The Emigrants defeats The Godfather in 1972, and the weight of this win–perhaps the greatest of all time–overshadows the other nominees, but particularly the Swedish feature, whose inaccessibility is also overmatched by the continued popularity of Deliverance and of Cabaret, and perhaps will languish in the annals of history with another underappreciated film, Sounder.