‘It’s About Refugees Today’: Erik Poppe on the Contemporary Angle of Haugesund Winner ‘The Emigrants’

Norwegian director Erik Poppe takes on Vilhelm Moberg’s acclaimed series of novels in “The Emigrants,” his new historical drama about a struggling Swedish family which emigrates to the U.S. in 1849, searching for a better future. 

“It’s probably the most classic work of literature in the whole Scandinavia,” he told Variety, taking about the 2022 Haugesund Festival winner ahead of its national premiere at the 50th Norwegian International Film Festival Haugesund. 

Which is why, when approached to direct the film, he had only one reservation: He had to make it his own. 

“SF Studios tried to develop it for years, with another director, but they couldn’t quite crack it. I agreed to take over under the condition that I would be able to start all over again. Focusing on what I believed was the most interesting part: the story of Kristina and her husband Karl-Oskar, their kids and their escape.” 

Written by Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram Eliassen and produced by Fredrik Wikström Nicastro, “The Emigrants” is distributed by SF Studios. REinvent International Sales handles sales. 

Played by Lisa Carlehed, Kristina quickly became the beating heart of the film, with Poppe fully committing to putting a female perspective first. Gustaf Skarsgård was cast as Karl-Oskar, with pop star Tove Lo also featured. 

“I was curious how she felt about all this, as a mother and as a woman. How was it, coming to this new country and realizing your family is ready to embrace every opportunity it has to offer?,” he wonders.

“I have done nine movies now and five of them had female protagonists. I was raised without a mother, so I guess I am just curious about them. I care for them. I respect the ongoing discussion [about representation], but we should be able to tell all stories. I don’t see why, as a man, I should only stick to those about other men.” 

While trying to reflect the reality of the time through costumes and sets, he wanted to keep things “simple and natural.” 

“I wanted it to be truthful. That’s why the camera was hand-held, that’s why there was this touch of documentary. Things feel so staged in these epic movies sometimes. You can sense the whole crew breathing down your neck,” he says.  

“I shot using natural light and wanted to come really close to these people. Be with them, especially with Kristina. I haven’t really seen anyone do that before.”  

In the 1970s, Swedish director Jan Troell also adapted Moberg’s work with Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, earning four Academy Award nominations and fully embracing its wider scope.  

“He showed everything! I chose to take this one story and remove everything else, even though it could be viewed as a radical take,” says Poppe. 

Luckily, his decision has already found a powerful supporter in Ullmann herself, at one point cast in a supporting role. 

“She was able to see our film and is its biggest ambassador now. She just loves this take and noticed that it’s about the refugees today. It takes place over 150 years ago, but it’s about today’s world.” 

While Poppe last took on a modern tragedy in “Utøya: July 22,” approaching “The Emigrants” from a contemporary angle as well was crucial, he says. Something the jurors at Haugesund clearly appreciated, rewarding his efforts with the Andreas Award.

“So many people lost their lives during that overseas journey,” says the “King’s Choice” helmer, thinking about the refugees back then but also today. 

“When we talk about migration, I feel the reactions are getting more and more polarized: Either you are for it or you are against it. That’s it. What happened to all the discussions?,” he wonders.  

“If you take on that kind of story, you have to treat it as if it was happening right now. Because it is – it’s still going on, which also says something about the strength of these books. People leave their homes because they have to. It’s their human right, especially when they believe their kids can survive in a new place or have a chance at a better life.”  

“If there is one theme in most of my movies, it probably has to do with belief. I think it’s more important to believe in something than not to believe at all, but the way our society operates today is that people don’t care anymore or they just care about themselves. But we do need each other. And we do need to believe.” 

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