Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Taking the Plunge

Jan Troell is a Swedish film director for whom the word "filmmaker" was invented. He not only directs his films; he writes them, photographs and edits most of them himself. In 1971, Svensk Filmindustri spent more money than they had ever spent on a single film until then to produce Troell's film diptych, Utvandrarna (Emigrants) and Invandrarna (Immigrants). Based on the epic novels of novelist Vilhelm Moberg, the films featured Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in the lead roles. They played the characters Karl-Oskar and Kristina, farmers in 19th century Sweden forced to choose between impossibly tough conditions for them in their homeland and the chance for a fresh start in America.

Though epic in scope, the film gives us intimate details of the hazards of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a sailing ship: the seasickness of people utterly unaccustomed to a life at sea, living in close quarters below decks - so close that everyone is afflicted with body lice -, the duration of the voyage that seems never to end, and the sweetness of reaching land and of standing on solid ground again.

Troell told a familiar American story of poor people risking everything - including their lives - to travel by ship to a faraway land that held out to them nothing but the promise of a life that might be better than the intolerable lives they had always known and for which there was never an alternative.

When film critic Vernon Young reviewed Troell's film for The Hudson Review in 1972, he opened his essay with the sentence, "The great American film has now been made - in Sweden."(1) The film is so great that, when Warner Brothers bought the rights to distribute it in the US, releasing them as The Emigrants and The New Land, not even their brutal editing of both films could diminish their impact.(2)

The history of America is, of course, the history of immigrants. Even the Native Americans crossed the frozen Bering Strait to North America more than ten thousand years ago from Siberia during the last Ice Age. Their progress over the millennia from North America to the farthest reaches of Patagonia in South America, establishing settlements everywhere in between, is one of the most amazing testaments to humanity's endless longing for greener pastures, for the lands of milk and honey that always lie just over the next horizon.     

At the end of The Great Gatsby, with Gatsby dead and his great house on Long Island falling into neglect, the narrator goes for a walk along the shore:

"I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

In his essay on Fitzgerald, Lionel Trilling wrote that "Ours is the only nation that prides itself upon a dream and gives its name to one. To the world it is anomalous in America that so much raw power should be haunted by envisioned romance. Yet in that anomaly lies, for good or bad, much of the truth of our national life."(3)

In the summer of 2001, upon going to live in Des Moines, Iowa, I saw a local news report of a railway car that was discovered that contained the dead bodies of numerous people. It was learned that they were Hispanic immigrants, left to die in the locked railway car by the people - now known as people smugglers or human traffickers - who had transported them all the way from the border to Iowa. Some people, including myself, wondered how and why they had come so far. But, of course, they wouldn't have come so far without some assurance that there would be jobs waiting for them.

Then, just last week, I saw another television report about the seventy-one refugees, all Syrians, found suffocated in the back of an impossibly small truck in Austria.(4) The people who had been quickly arrested were Bulgarian and Hungarian people smugglers, who provide the desperate refugees with means of transportation, at a prohibitive price, farther into the European Union. Most of the refugees who preceded them - the ones who arrived alive at their destinations - ended up in Germany and Sweden.

When I see on television the immigrants to Europe and the US crossing the waters and the borders that lie between them and safety, between them and a good life for themselves and for their families, I remember some of the people, trapped in the upper floors of the Twin Towers on September 11, who stood in the windows with smoke billowing from behind them, waving to whomever was watching, facing the choice of burning to death or jumping. To us, such a choice is unimaginable - unthinkable. But it is the choice that every immigrant to Europe and the US is now facing.

(1) Vernon Young, "Hands Across the Sea," The Hudson Review, 25, No. 2 (Summer 1972).
(2) The Emigrants was released in the US with 40 minutes trimmed from its original length. The New Land had 102 minutes cut out.
(3) Lionel Trilling, "F. Scott Fitzgerald," The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: The Viking Press, Inc.)

(4) The small truck filled with dead bodies made me think of the gas vans that the Nazis used to gas the Jews before the gas chambers were built.

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