Octogenarian director Jan Troell is among the last generation of active filmmakers with memories of living under the threat of Nazism. In The Last Sentence, he introduces Americans to an iconic anti-Nazi Swede, but he also exposes his subject’s feet of clay in a tangled personal life. This nuanced character study is a challenge to conventional portraits of heroism, and equally challenging for an American audience to watch.
By 1933, ex-theology professor Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) is celebrated as the outspoken editor of the Göteborgs Handels-och Sjöfartstidning newspaper in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, when he denounces the rise of a new chancellor in Germany: “Mr. Hitler is an insult.” (There are lots of fond shots of lining up type and laborious newspaper printing symbolic of old-time crusading journalism.) He delights in the threatening telegram response from Hermann Göring, and he gleefully ratchets up his protests by penning Hitler as the devil. Taking Mein Kampf seriously, he warns Hitler is “a devourer of human beings.”
That rattles the Swedish business community, which still looks to the Versailles Treaty’s requirement of German payback to Swedish banks and holds sway over the government’s posture of appeasing neutrality. From a luxurious office, banker Marcus Wallenberg (yes, of the same family as the acclaimed Jewish rescuer Raoul) insists, in words taken from a real letter to the newspaper: “There are excellent Jews in Sweden, but that is not the case in Germany. If Jews were exterminated, the country would lose good will. No foreign debtors would have their debts repaid.”
Segerstedt smugly keeps up his long campaign because his publisher Axel Forssman (Björn Granath) is running interference, even when King Gustaf V briefly orders issues of the newspaper confiscated. That stalwart support continues despite Segerstedt’s longtime affair with Forssman’s wealthy and domineering Jewish wife, Maja (Pernilla August). The men even regularly pass each other awkwardly on their mansion’s elaborate staircase. The maids in both of their houses gossip, while the editor’s very unhappy Norwegian wife desperately tries to keep up appearances by hosting elegant dinner parties where he can shine.
Segerstedt’s guilty conscience haunts him, first, in the presence of the veiled ghost of his mother, who died when he was a child, possibly of a suicide. He speaks to her as if through a dream, constantly seeking her approval, yet he doesn’t confide in the women in his life when they are alive and sinking into despair from loneliness, health problems, and stress. As the years go by, they die one by one, and he’s haunted by them, too. He sees them as happier dead than when dealing with him in life. (These slow scenes do seem Bergman-esque, especially as August is known for her work in that director’s films.)
The women who survive him are not treated well, either. He sets up competition between his daughters: “the pretty one” Eva (Hanna Holmqvist), and his defiant journalist daughter Ingrid (played by the director’s daughter Johanna Troell, who also directed the making-of documentary that will be on the DVD). His last secretary, Estrid Ancker (Birte Hibertson), is pretty much his doormat, though she was the one who promoted his legacy for decades. She was interviewed by the director in her 90s. (The biography, the basis for the film, is not available in English.)
Though his last words in March 1945 express his regret that Hitler still lives (Segerstedt died that month before Hitler’s death in April), the film’s title comes from an Icelandic saga on the importance of a dead man’s reputation. But this Last Sentence leaves a problematic impression of a lone voice.