Sweet Land: a review

All I knew about this movie before I watched it was (1) the title, which is evocative; and (2) the premise: A young German woman travels to Minnesota in the 1920’s to marry Olaf Torvik, a Norwiegan immigrant and farmer.

This could have been sticky sweet, a tale of young love facing the elements and winning. But it was more complex than that, and more rewarding. In Minnesota in 1920 there is no love for anything German. Too many fathers and sons didn’t come back from WWI, and they hold Germany responsible, even years later. Inge and Olaf don’t have the awkwardness of dealing with each other, because the pastor refuses to marry them. She could be a spy. She could be amoral. They will have to look into the legalities.

I know from first hand experience how small farmers live and work, and the director doesn’t pull any punches here. Inge and Olaf aren’t married — they must wait for papers from Germany — and they sleep separately, but they are partners in a very elemental sense. Inge takes on field work, and together they manage when around them farms are going bankrupt and being auctioned off.

The joy of a movie like this is the clarity and simplicity of the relationship. For most of history, marriage was a survival mechanism. There wasn’t time to consider what it meant to be married, what goals they had in common. That was really straight forward: food on the table. Of course marriages went wrong in those circumstances as well, but not because the couple couldn’t agree on a political philosophy, or if they wanted to live in the city or suburbs. They just wanted to live.

This is a love story, but it’s a very quiet and subtle one. It is sweet, but it’s not artifically so. The young farmer and his soon-to-be bride are very well drawn, given how little dialog there is. A few of the secondary characters were a bit flat — the avaricious sheriff in league with the heartless banker, for example. But Inge and Olaf are the important characters, the ones you want to have on the screen. I’m sure I’ll watch this movie again, to see what I missed in the photography and imagery. There was so much of it — up to the very end, when the titles are rolling — that it’s hard to look away.