Sweet Land begins with the quote, “Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story.” In the present, an old woman dies next to her son. The son has his own family and many years before, that woman found her husband dead. Her family came to help her decide what to do with the body. 1920’s Minnesota is where the love story occurs that precedes these events chronologically. We reach back from that initial scene to the death of the husband to the love story and work back out by the end. When the old woman was young she was Inge the mail order bride from Norway. She arrives in rural Minnesota and appears out of place in her clothes with phonograph in hand.
A kind man who speaks fluent English comes to the window of the station accompanied by a painfully shy man. They all leave together and we learn that it is the painfully shy man whom she is to marry. They are taken to the alter where another, more significant, bomb is dropped.
Inge speaks almost no English, but when a few words of German are uttered, she opens up with a flurry of words that might as well be expletives. It turns out that Inge isn’t Norwegian. She is German and in rural America of the 1920’s. This means that WWI being over is splitting hairs when it comes to thinking of her as the enemy. The preacher tells them they need to get her citizenship papers in order before he will marry them. It’s pretty much impossible to do considering the prejudices against her. More importantly, this is a small, rural, and religious community that won’t see them living together as an unavoidable necessity. The painfully shy man, whose name is Olaf, does what he can to make things work. Sometimes that means Inge stays with a friend and other times it means that he sleeps in the barn while she stays in the house.
Olaf never seems to be happy about any part of the situation. He only knows that everything but his heart is telling him he can’t be with Inge. We can tell that he has strong feelings for her, but that he is at the mercy of the community. There are few red flag turning points in the story. It’s a gradual change as Inge is moves closer and closer to Olaf. Olaf slowly goes from being angry in the closet to having a backbone. The same change occurs at a measured pace within the community. In place of plot pivots are collections of small moments that make up the love story preceding the family at the beginning and end of the film.
The visual backdrop of this love story is dream-like with images of blue sky and never ending fields. It’s visually stunning in it’s simplicity and emotionally moving it’s authenticity. The film makes an emotional connection between the land and the family that inhabits it. That part goes hand in hand with Inge and Olaf both being immigrants in a community who fight against difference, within and without, to be American.
It’s best to let this film catch you in a sentimental mood. Instead of picking up a copy of The Notebook (2004), I recommend you give this one a try.