Wednesday, November 24, 2010

SWEET LAND (2005): An Immigrant’s Dream

The farm my mother grew up upon was remarkably similar to those seen in the movie Sweet Land.  Sadly, the positive role of the family farm, the country church and the immigrant may now be a part of the American past.  The sheer cost of running a farm has now made ownership of one largely prohibitive for most families and as a result farms are more and more being run by corporations.  The loss of a rural populace has made the demise of the country church inevitable.  And the only role of the immigrant in rural America anymore is as a migrant worker and never as a landowner.  That the immigrant will ever again play an important part in our economy is largely improbable since most of the tasks they could perform are being outsourced to other nations.
In Sweet Land, Olaf (played by Tim Guinee as a young man) is a young farmer in Minnesota that has emigrated from Norway.  Olaf goes to the railroad station with his friend Elvin Frandsen (Alan Cumming) to pick up his mail order bride.  Olaf is under the assumption that he is picking up a good Norwegian girl, and only later does he discover that she was raised in Germany.  Since World War I has just ended, the prospects of a successful and happy marriage with a German girl are small.  Olaf meets the young Inge (Elizabeth Reaser), his bride to be, whose belongings consist of a couple of bags and a large phonograph record player that we assume that she has carried upon her lap all the way over from Europe.  Inge knows virtually no English, and Olaf cannot communicate with her in the German tongue.  It’s only through the intervention of Minister Sorrensen (John Heard), who is in charge of the rural Lutheran Church that Olaf and other farmers in the area attend, does Olaf learn the truth about his fiancé’s immigrant status.  This makes for a number of difficulties.  What paperwork Inge can provide does not indicate whether she has entered America legally or whether she had ever been involved in espionage as a German citizen.  What the paperwork does indicate is that she was considered a member of the Socialist Party in Germany.  Though Inge never gives any indication during the movie of having any political leanings whatsoever, she immediately arouses suspicion among the entire rural community.  That and the fact she likes to dance and makes black coffee with too many beans arouses the minister’s indignation to the point that he refuses to marry the young couple.
Olaf, though sometimes slow to comprehend and being a man with little imagination, is still a decent man.  He allows Inge to sleep at his house while he sleeps in the hayloft in the barn.  In all things, he is respectful to the longings and privacy of Inge.  And though Olaf has a falling out with his church that also results in his temporarily losing the friendship of his neighbor Frandsen, Olaf is extremely shrewd when it comes to the business of farming.  Unlike Frandsen, he refuses to do business with the bank run by Harmo (Ned Beatty).  As Olaf says to Harmo when the latter first meets Inge, banking and farming do not mix.  While Olaf has seen the magnificent potential of the new farm machinery, he also understands that the price of the new mechanizations often leave the farmer too badly in debt in hopes of ever owning the farmland free and clear.  Olaf and Inge farm his entire plot of land virtually by hand.  Yet with his wisdom, Olaf still manages to make the most foolish and yet noble decision of any character within the film.  Olaf makes a bid of $7,000 upon Frandsen’s farm rather than allow his estranged friend’s land from being foreclosed by the bank.  Since Olaf does not actually have the $7,000 to back this bid up, it then puts his own farm at risk of foreclosure.
The goodness of Olaf is in great part due to the influence of Inge.  Inge, being the beautiful person that she is, comes to dominate the entire story.  The few words of English that Inge learns to speak throughout the course of the movie are spoken with great intelligence and passion.  Inge turns out to be feisty and alive regardless of how seemingly isolated she is because of her inability to speak the English language.  She becomes a source of refuge for Frandsen’s wife, Brownie (Alex Kingston), as the two make and then consume one of Brownie’s pies.  Inge, at one point losing her patience with Olaf, makes Olaf understand that he must have dreams as even “duckies” have dreams.  Finally, she makes the minister understand that, whatever her status with the law or the church may be, she and Olaf are married because she feels it in the heart.  The minister’s legalistic interpretations of religion are no argument for what Inge feels and says.  It is primarily because of the impression that Inge makes upon those around her that the church and Olaf’s neighbors come up with $7,000 to prevent Olaf’s farm from being foreclosed.
Towards the end of the movie, we see the elderly Inge (Lois Smith) with her elderly and now somewhat deranged neighbor, Frandsen (Paul Sand), and also with Inge’s son.  Though likely forbidden by law, Inge is determined to bury her late husband, Olaf, on the same land that he had farmed for more than forty years.  Inge refuses to abide by any nonsensical convention up until the very end.  Likewise, a few years later, Inge’s son and young granddaughter bury Inge’s casket next to that of her husband.  Thus, the two immigrants end their long journey that began for the both of them in Europe and ended on a rural farm in southern Minnesota.  Probably, most of the farm land will eventually end up in the hands of developers.  We never know for sure if this is the case, but we learn that this will be the decision facing the son that, upon the death of Inge, has inherited the land.
On its face, Sweet Land is a simple story about complicated social conventions.  Sweet Land, at least among the movies I have seen, I believe to be the best movie to be released in 2005.  In fact, I would be tempted to say it has been the best movie released during the last decade.  The movie is full of symbolism from the bank to the church to the phonograph record player to pie to geese and to the land itself.  Yet none of the symbolism ever diminishes the film’s realism.  Nothing in the film is beyond the realm of believability.  And though the film in the end tells a tender story, it is never a film where the sentimentality is overstated – though one could see while watching the film how this could likely have occurred.  The dozen or so words of English that the young Inge learns throughout the film are all she really needs to speak.  Olaf, too, is a person of few words, though he does know how to speak English.  What’s most impressive about his character is that he does grow through the process of the movie.  Likewise, Frandsen, as unreliable as he is, has a human side that makes him one hundred times more appealing than the odious Harmo, the banker that sees no worth in anything that does not involve the exchange of dollar bills.  Even the dogmatic Minister Sorrensen succumbs to decency in the end because his services are so dependent upon the survival of those that work the land.
Yet what a sad movie Sweet Land is in the respect that we can see an America that is now probably lost.  This was our fault.  There was no need to place farmers at the mercy of politicians or to lower the price of a bushel of corn to the point where the farmer was priced right out of the market.  That corn, which used to be a staple of the American diet, is now being marketed for the production of ethanol.   Unfortunately, the promise of new profits from the corn will not benefit the farm houses that are now largely abandoned.  We no longer have these great entrepreneurs that worked the land.  Especially, we will never again have the kind of farmer that harvested the crop by the use of horses or mules.  The children of farmers are now moving to urban areas to find employment and will have less contact with their neighbors living thirty feet away than their parents did that lived more than a mile away from the next closest home.  Whether banking and farming does or does not mix, the two in any case have now become completely intertwined.  The film Sweet Land only gives us a foreboding of what it was that farmers like Inge and Olaf would have had to face when doing business with banks because Inge and Olaf at least were able to remain upon the land.  Not all of our ancestors would have that same kind of luck.
Sweet Land is 111 minutes in length, was an independent film directed by an Egyptian immigrant by the name of Ali Selim (which seems especially unlikely when one considers it takes place on a Midwestern farm and involves European immigrants), was based on a short story by a Minnesota writer named Will Weaver, and contains marvelously restrained acting that would be required in a movie about a bunch of stoic farmers.  But beyond telling a story that was deliberately intended to be moving, it also communicates a theme that necessitates the need of maintaining a sense of self and a need of sometimes violating social convention to avoid spiritual starvation in a hostile land where one could very easily die from feelings of isolation.  During the months of January and February, wind chills of fifty or sixty below are not uncommon among the Minnesota plains.  Survival is dependent upon hard work and good luck.  One’s social life might revolve around potluck suppers in the church basement.  Assistance may only be forthcoming from those that one meets on Sunday mornings.  As Sweet Land shows, neither the farms, the churches nor the communities surrounding them would ever have survived without the decency of those that contributed towards these institutions.  And it’s possible that greed, small-mindedness and self-righteousness have made this kind of life impossible and just about disappear.
December 23, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008

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