Film Review: The Last Sentence

Intimate and handsomely designed portrait of a real-life crusading anti-Hitler journalist in Sweden during the war years engages on several levels even as it sacrifices a better defined political and historic backdrop.

With the wartime drama The Last Sentence—a wise counterprogramming entry—veteran Swedish director Jan Troell (Everlasting Moments, The New Land and multi-Oscar-nominated The Emigrants) delivers an interestingly complex character at a momentous time in history. The film should capture the attention of serious filmgoers in a season awash with the silly and sophomoric.

Troell’s beautifully appointed black-and-white period production and the elite characters portrayed by well-known Danish star Jesper Christensen and fine supporting players stamp the film with admirable authenticity. But more challenging matters and context like the plight of Jews in wartime Sweden and the country’s fuzzy neutrality get scant attention.

The reason is that Troell is clearly focused on his real-life journalist hero Torgny Segerstedt (Christensen), his valiant effort to expose Hitler for the monster he was, and Segerstedt’s not so exemplary behavior as a husband and family man. His mistress, his dogs and his drive to expose Hitler are his passions, not wife or children.

A former theologian who became a journalist, Segerstedt is first met in early 1933 as editor-in-chief of a prestigious Gothenburg newspaper in which he writes a blistering column denouncing Hitler as he seizes power in Germany. Berlin has taken notice and it’s no less than the newly appointed Hermann Göring who sends the paper a threatening telegram damning the column. Segerstedt counters with another scathing editorial on Herr Hitler. Soon after the Reichstag is set afire, thus leading to Hitler’s complete seizure of power.

On the social front, Segerstedt is a respected community leader who moves among an impressive crowd of socially prominent friends and admiring professional and politically connected colleagues. Among these is lawyer Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), Segerstedt’s closest friend who had lured him from theology to journalism and is on the newspaper’s board. He’s also a tolerant and forgiving pal, since Segerstedt is carrying on an affair with Forssman’s wife Maja (Pernilla August), who, revealed in a few fleeting references, is Jewish. She’s a frivolous, outgoing gal apparently feeling no pain about adultery or what might be the fate of fellow Jews as Hitler’s ascent continues.

Thoug Axel seems accepting of his friend’s escalating affair with his wife, Segerstedt’s wife Puste (Ulla Skoog), a colorless stoic, suffers. She sits back and can only watch helplessly as, even at elegant dinner parties and other fancy social occasions, the liaison grows more apparent. Such humiliation and betrayal leads to her departure to her native Norway. She returns but dies soon after in 1934, apparently of a heart attack.

All the while as war grows closer, Segerstedt, with his columns and editorials, continues his strong stand against Hitler. As the ’30s German buildup becomes the full-blown ’40s war, Sweden’s new foreign minister urges the editor to curtail his anti-Nazi articles. And when Segerstedt is summoned to Sweden’s Royal Palace, the King himself expresses concern that the newspaper’s position is putting the country in danger. The government confiscates some issues of the paper, but Segerstedt overcomes the pressures and continues his crusade.

During the war years, Segerstedt’s social circle narrows as illness and death take their toll. But his work and love for his dogs sustain him as he vows not to die until Hitler bites the dust. His final article runs just before the Third Reich’s surrender.

Making good use of plentiful close-ups, The Last Sentence is not without some familiar Bergmanesque touches. Troell periodically inserts encounters his hero has with the deceased women in his life (ghostly evocations of his mother, wife and mistress, each in black) and the emotional lives of characters are discretely muted. Also Bergmanesque, beyond the richly recreated period sets, are the film’s pastoral glimpses of streams and fields, a sharp counterpoint to the turmoil that surrounds Sweden. Adding another dimension, occasional archival material helps propel the story as it moves through the pre-war and war years and the massive and costly German defeat at Stalingrad.

The Last Sentence
is well-crafted, but The Remains of the Day remains the benchmark for a film about World War II depicted on the home front or in dangerous proximity.

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