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'The Last Sentence' is a Holocaust Film with a Monstrous Hero

The acclaimed director of 'The Emigrants' and 'The New Land' returns with a powerful true story.

Rialto Distribution

How many of us know the map of Scandinavia well enough to understand the exigencies of what happened there between 1933 and 1945? The countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are like a hand trying to hold the Baltic Sea. The looming neighbors were Germany and the Soviet Union. Sweden is in the middle of it all, and it does not seem like a comfortable place to be. Do you know what happened to Sweden in the war? It claimed neutrality, and so avoided invasion and occupation, all of which befell its neighbors. Sweden tried to balance survival with honor, which left a lot to feel guilty over. But the history is complicated: Sweden sold large quantities of its iron ore to Germany, and many say that prolonged the war. On the other hand, Sweden took in 8,000 Jews from Denmark and gave them sanctuary.

I had to look all this up, and I was prompted by a movie, The Last Sentence, directed by Jan Troell, that is just opening in America, a year and a half after it was first available in Europe. At the heart of the film is Torgny Segerstedt, a man raised to be a professor of theology, but whose faith has left him. So he becomes the editor of a leading newspaper, convinced of the evil of Hitler and Nazism and certain of the need for his paper to speak out. He is a hero for our times, in most obvious ways. There really was a Segerstedt, and he stuck to his guns and his belief, dying only a few weeks before Hitler in a country where neutrality had endured. He is dedicated, liberal, handsome, devoted to his dogs, courageous, devout as only an atheist can be, resolved to do the right thing.

He is also something of a monster—and here we begin to discover the depth and subtlety of Troell’s film. Torgny rules his household. He has unquestioned loyalty from his servants, a crushed obedience from his daughter, and storm-trooper allegiance from his dogs—two Great Danes and a bulldog. So his Norwegian wife, Puste, has no option but to behold and permit his love affair with Maja Forssman, wife to Torgny’s close friend and proprietor of his newspaper. The wife is Norwegian. The mistress is Jewish. The wife is weak, pretty, yielding, and sad. The mistress is masterful, modern (she is a drug-taker), and knows how cruel her presence is to the wife. The mistress’s husband accepts being a cuckold because he admires Torgny and believes in his insistence on an anti-fascist stance in the paper.

The Last Sentence does not fill in the complexity of Sweden’s position. Torgny is an increasingly embattled figure in the movie as politicians urge him to go gently in his writing. There is a brilliant scene in which he is called before the king, Gustav V (Jan Tiselius), and given the same icy advice. He holds to his line, and in time he is removed from his newspaper. His wife kills herself, and a kind of moral gloom settles on the Segerstedt house in which Torgny’s life is eased by the arrival of a pretty young secretary, as pliant and uncritical as the dogs. I should add that from time to time, the story cuts away to newsreel footage of the German army and a Hitler who is often attended by faithful dogs.

The movie is drawn from a biography of Segerstedt by a Danish writer, Kenne Fant, and it has been scripted by Fant and Troell. Jan Troell is a remarkable figure. He is in his eighties now, and best known for two films from the early ’70s, The Emigrants and The New Land, about Scandinavians coming to America in the nineteenth century. Those films starred Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, and they are major works. The Emigrants was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Liv Ullmann. The two films are an epic—somewhat overshadowed by the two parts of The Godfather—but they are films of the same quality. Troell continued to work, but by the end of the century he seemed close to retirement. In 2008, he made a comeback, with Everlasting Moments, which seemed to me less than his best work. But now, when retirement might have set in, he has returned with a magnificent film, every bit as challenging as neutrality itself. Yet, for some reason, it has taken a long time to get an American release. (It did play in a few small festivals.)

The Last Sentence is shot in austere black and white (by Mischa Gavrjusjov), and I suspect Troell realizes that some viewers will conclude that this looks and feels like an Ingmar Bergman film. That’s fair, though it allows one to make this reminder: Ingmar Bergman, who was 21 in 1939, and who lived in Sweden throughout the war, never really took on the experience of those bad years in his work. Of course, in several films Bergman imagined a world beset by future wars, in which courage and fear were fingers on the same hand. But that’s more reason to respect what Troell has done here. He is a great and restrained director, seldom extravagant or showy, but trusting of actors, décor, and a relentless attention to mixed motives.

Segerstedt is played by a Danish actor, Jesper Christensen, and it is striking how far he has made himself resemble the real Segerstedt—grave, god-like, but unsmiling and as fierce and selfish as he is upstanding. It is a performance worthy of Carl Dreyer, the great Danish director whose spirit hovers over Troell and Bergman and many other Scandinavian directors. Ulla Skoog is the wife, and Penilla August the mistress. They are both beautiful women who have grown older and sadder, and they have a presence that is palpable. Simply to behold their glances and the small strategies of spatial positioning is to feel the awkward viability of neutrality for Sweden.

The Last Sentence is opening modestly in an America where Jan Troell is no longer a familiar name even on the art house circuit. We are closer than ever to times in which political action is compromised by fear and good sense. It’s not too hard to think of our president as someone hobbled in balancing idealism and caution. That is an extra reason for seeing a movie that makes it clear how much politics begin in the home and in domestic and emotional arrangements. Even a dog could know that.