17. Liv Ullmann as Kristina in "The Emigrants" (1971)
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Jan Troell’s “The Emigrants” was apparently one of Ingmar Bergman’s favorite films, and I hardly find that surprising – I honestly think it says more about the human condition than many of Bergman’s films ever did, and Ullmann’s work here, too, is startlingly human. The film itself is wondrous in that it's a historical document that somehow manages to be so all-encompassing – it’s sensuous and solemn, rapturous and lyrical, so much that we can guess that Troell’s really worked his ass off to translate his passion, and his celebration of the human race in general, onto the screen for us.
While The Emigrants is very much a film about a shared, collective human experience, though, it’s hardly a film about its performers. It never appeals to easy pathos like some other grand, epic stories about the immigrant experience do; thus, the film never requires its actors to succumb to some sort of aching sentimentality. Rather, they almost blend into the sceneries; this film is, really, an ode to nature, so Troell creates for us a sense of intense commitment people have to where they come from. He blankets these person’s experiences, their emotions, and their most human of vulnerabilities into these picturesque landscapes, and we somehow get the feeling that this journey transcends, in scale, the people undertaking it.
That makes it difficult, then, to discuss a level of ‘performance’ in Liv Ullmann’s work here, simply because it doesn’t seem like a performance at all. She plays Kristina – a pale, delicate, and gently determined young woman, wife to Max von Sydow’s Karl-Oskar – and she shifts in and out of frame; she’s not always on screen, so we’re not always in touch with what’s happening to her. But who says we’re supposed to be? What Troell does is sort of canvas for us a mood, giving us a sense of time and place through these lush sceneries. Even when the camera isn’t focusing on her, we still have some sort of idea about what’s happening to her simply because we’re seeing what’s happening to everyone else – and, through that, we’re reminded that this is a shared experience. The suffering Kristina’s fellow travelers are being forced to endure is indeed the same sort of suffering that Kristina’s enduring as well. On journeys like these, people are reduced to artifacts – they become part of the scenery, blend into their environments. I can’t believe that the Academy had the sense to even nominate her work, simply because it’s so atypical of a performance they’d appreciate.
We first meet Kristina a few minutes into the film – she’s sitting on a swing in all her coquettish glory, complete with her coy eyes and playful pigtails; she’s supposed to appear virginal, childlike, and that’s exactly how Kristina looks to us. Ullmann herself has a way of appearing both beautifully placid and luridly fragile at the same time – her face appears so calm, reserved, and yet so capable of being broken easily. You don’t want her to break – you want to hold her instead, protect her – and so you wonder if she will, indeed, be broken down in some way by circumstances. We soon see her after she becomes a mother, and there’s still something so virginal about her – when she interacts with Karl-Oskar, for example, the way she speaks tells us that she’s terribly insecure, perhaps even god-fearing.
And so her hope slowly deteriorates as the film goes on – she loses a child, something for which it seems she blames herself, and she’s frightened by Karl-Oskar’s reaction to another pregnancy. Before she leaves, she quietly observes her past territory – she wants to get a good grasp of what she’s leaving behind; she, too, takes one of her children on a swing again, giving us a glimpse of the girl she once was – and, essentially, the identity she’s leaving behind.
Thus begins the devastatingly tragic chapter that takes place aboard a ship from Europe to America, where we feel everything for Kristina. She’s stripped bare of the place that has formed her, made her a person, and what’s left is a woman who’ll probably need to regain some sort of self-identity once she reaches the New World. On the trip, she caves in. She becomes fearfully suspicious of everyone and everything around her – so much that it takes a physical toll on her, as she nearly bleeds to death in one episode. She is, after all, experiencing herself in a different kind of world for the first time; she’s even reduced to a virgin, in some ways. Through just a few key frames, Ullmann so deftly communicates to us the kind of woman Kristina is; it never seems like a performance simply because hers is an experience enveloped in this diary, and so she’s part of a collective history, a shared past.
What Ullmann possesses here, in this performance, is control over what’s quite possibly her most valuable and lucrative asset as an actress – her face. Always so full of expression – whether she's introspective, uneasy, fearful – Ullmann has a way of integrating into her surroundings, pulling us in with her gaze, so much that it’s almost a relief to see Ullmann’s Kristina and how she’s reacting to the world around her. The inner psychology of Ullmann’s work here is fascinating – she's the one performer who unflinchingly gives us her frame of mind, which, in turn, provides for us a place of respite. She’s more reflective than the people she’s traveling with, and her presence, in turn, gives a sort of space for us to react to this journey.
Ullmann never has any big, huge monologues that tell us exactly who her Kristina is or how she views her life, but we still get the feeling that she’s a woman who’s driven intensely by the place that has shaped her, her home. Through this, she defies any sorts of clichéd, typical notions of what it means to be a wife. She’s hardly an earth mother, but maybe she’s one in the making – for someone as ruminating, and as tacitly absorbing of the world around her as she, we wouldn’t be surprised if she somehow gains a sense of omniscience later on. She’s a woman driven by her own principles – it seems that she’s keener on going to America after her daughter dies, for example – rather than those of others. And yet Ullmann never explicitly defines any of this for us; she and Troell both work to create Kristina as a woman who allows us to stand back, observe the ordeal from a distance, and yet always be in touch with her surroundings from an emotional standpoint. She’s a reflection of her surroundings – always observing, always taking in what is around her, so much that she blends in: not only to the scenery, but a much larger, collective human history.