Sweet Land (DVD, 2007) Reviews
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Sweet Land (DVD, 2007)

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Intolerant Christianists in western Minnesota, A.D. 1920

Feb 24, 2010
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Elizabeth Reaser and the rest of the cast, David Tumblety's cinematography, making-of featurette

Cons:details (see review), opening, doubts about relenting by the shunners

The Bottom Line: A difficult immigrant experience in my homeland


The only story about any of my great-grandparents I remember being told involved a Danish emigrant who scandalized her southern Minnesota Danish Baptist church by wearing a feather in her hat one day. She responded:  “The Lord won’t mind.” I don’t think of my mother, who was county chair of the Republican Party in a very Republican county, as a rebel, but she refused to join the local (non-Danish) Baptist congregation because it forbade dancing, card-playing, and makeup (the bans on smoking and drinking were fine by her).

This heritage was brought to mind by watching “Sweet Land” (2005), in which a mail-order bride from Norway (who is German… and a member of the Socialist Party!), Inge Altenberg (Elizabeth Reaser, Twilight), arrives in western Minnesota (north of the western end of the Minnesota River, between Madison and Montevideo) and is shunned by the self-righteous “good people,” including a minister the Rev. Sorrrensen (John Heard) who is shocked at how black the coffee she makes is. (Dishwater-colored coffee is part of the culture of rural Minnesota from which I long ago departed!) And dancing! The Victrola that Inge brought with her was much larger than her suitcase (which must have had some 78rpm records in it). An' she don't speak the Good English, like we do...

Circa 1919-20, after her stolid would-be husband Olaf Torvik (Tim Guinee, Lily Dale), and his neighbor/best-man Frandsen (Alan Cumming) rescue Inge from the train station they take her to church where the congregation is assembled for a wedding. The minister (a native speaker of German himself) is appalled that the would-be-bride is German, and the local secular official will not allow her to be married because Germany was recently the enemy (in World War I) and she might be a spy. Olaf says, "I thought we won,” but this does not dent the xenophobe, or the judge who is also the owner of the local mill and richest man around Harmo (Ned Beatty).

Inge has been staying with the Frandsens (sleeping with the nine children), but wanting some privacy for a bath, sneaks into Olaf’s house in the middle of the night. Thereafter, he sleeps in the hayloft, yielding his bed to her.

The minister drives them out of church (like Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” they have the name (fornicators) without the game. The self-righteous shun them. (The Frandsens aren’t self-righteous and don’t). No one helps them harvest their grain (corn and wheat), though Inge shows her ability to work hard in the fields.

After the harvest, Harmo forecloses on his cousin Frandsen. Olaf bids more than he has for the farm. The minister and his flock side with Olaf rather than Harmo, and Rev. Sorrensen even accedes to Inge and Olaf being married without official papers. Like my great-grandmother, Inge exclaims that the Lord understands (though marriage is more consequential a religious matter than a hat feather, I know). There is something Disneyesque about the happy ending (of the 1920s story, not the framing 1968 one), but the attitudes, not least contempt for the exuberant fertility of the Frandsens, and the readiness to judge of 1920s rural Minnesota is familiar to me from 1950s and 60s rural Minnesota (also see “The Toilers and the Wayfarers” set in a more recent time there).

I was long gone before I became aware that the congregation of the church in which I was raised was almost entirely of German descent, so that the denial/erasure of German background of those with German names (and German as a mother tongue) in the wake of WWI helps explain my not thinking of the names and noticing they were all German. (My Scottish/English father, native to the place, seemed to have a keener sense of descent, distinguishing the “German Lutheran” from the “Swedish Lutheran” from the “Norwegian Lutheran” churches; I don’t know if there was so ethnic a basis for the Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, or Presbyterian churches in town; the Catholics had mostly Irish names, but some German ones, too).

Though photographed close the Nestor Almendros's “Days of Heaven” manner by David Tumblety (Hit and Runway), and loved by Olaf and Inge,  the land and its people seem rather harsh to me. The good-hearted, somewhat feckless babymaker being played by Alan Cumming (the making-of bonus feature establishes that the part was written for him) is amusing, and I was interested to learn that firstime-director Ali Selim, who adapted Will Weaver’s short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat" is a Minnesota native (albeit from the Twin Cities, 130 miles east of Montevideo).

Though finding much of my native culture (background) on screen, I have to say that the music is inappropriate. I never heard a banjo growing up. They’d fit Tennessee and points south, whereas accordions and concertinas are typical of early-20th-century Minnesotans of German and Norwegian descent. (The corn is modern hybrid and oddly harvested, and I’m surprised that there is no windbreak of trees planted on the north side of the house, too, but these are pretty idle concerns that don’t detract from my admiration for the movie.)

The character, except for Tim Guinee as Olaf, and Lois Smith (as the elderly Inge, ca. 1968) don’t sound Minnesotan (which does not include “you betcha” but has a lilt that I long ago unconsciously shed). I can’t judge Elizabeth Reaser’s or Heard's German, but her performance as the high-spirited immigrant whose spirit is not broken despite the attempts of busybodies (and the German Lutheran minister of a Norwegian Lutheran congregation) keeps me from caring.

Cumming, Guinee, Reaser, Smith, and Alex Kingston (as Mrs. Frandsen, called “Brownie”) are all sympathetic and excellent in their roles.

I’m a bit curious why Olaf had to send away for a bride (my Scandinavian forbearers arrived in the 1880s) and can’t say that the present-day, third-generation frame works all that well —indeed, the opening ten minutes are something of a hurdle to get over—, but most of the movie is about Inge’s early years on the farm with Olaf and works very well.

©2010, Stephen O. Murray


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