Odds are you’ve never heard of Torgny Segerstedt. The Last Sentence struggles to present a clear reason why you should have. Maybe his name should be remembered because he irritated the neutral Swedish government with his anti-Hitler journalism in the 1930s. Or maybe it’s just worth knowing that he had a salacious personal life and treated his wife rather poorly.
Segerstedt was the editor-in-chief of a Gothenburg newspaper that ran his angry columns about the travesty of Hitler’s rise and the dangers fascism posed to Europe. Sweden never declared war, but he and his publishers sure did, stirring up trouble and earning the ire of Nazi propagandists who preferred to maintain a sunny public image.
In The Last Sentence, Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) devotes more of his time to his love affair than taking down the Nazis with ink. He has hooks up with Maja Forssman (Pernilla August), the wife of the couple that owns his newspaper. His emotionally damaged wife, Puste (Ulla Skoog), agonizes over his infidelity, and he responds with cold aloofness.
Director and co-writer Jan Troell certainly can’t be accused of hagiography, as the movie possesses a no-nonsense tone and lingers on Segerstedt’s personal shortcomings. Christensen’s performance is the movie’s highlight, portraying a stubborn man with little sentimentality. The elements call to mind the great family dramas of another Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, but unfortunately the quality does not.
The Last Sentence doesn’t have the aesthetic or structure as graceful as cinephiles might hope to see in a black-and-white Swedish movie. Certain shots are lovely, but most are routine. The screenplay’s exposition clunks along quite awkwardly, as characters find convenient reasons to spout out background information. Imagined conversations between the ghost of Segerstedt’s mother and other deceased characters feel like shortcuts rather than profound meditations on life.
The movie’s biggest failure is that it never feels entirely confident in what it’s trying to do. The first half largely focuses on Segerstedt’s strained marriage and love affair, then attention jumps to his conflicts with the Swedish government as he criticizes their impotence against the Nazis. But just as that aspect becomes intriguing, the story abandons it without payoff, and fumbles through some more personal bits before it peters out.
The political angle promises thoughtful discourse as it examines the point of view that Sweden shouldn’t get on Hitler’s bad side. We live in a world in which most people will agree that stopping Hitler was a pretty good idea, but the Swedish government lived in fear of their country being destroyed. Their army likely wouldn’t last long anyway, and the attacks would be hard to recover from. Segerstedt finds himself accused of trying to throw his country into war, and finds his free-speech under attack.
But the movie never shows what, if any, impact the newspaper actually had on the public’s desire to go to war. Did the paper really spark a movement, or was it just government paranoia? If there’s supposed to be a sense of failure, or success, or satisfaction in having tried, it doesn’t come through. The ending arrives not with any sense of conclusion, but because at some point, there was no where else to meander.
Director: Jan Troell
Writers: Klaus Rifbjerg, Jan Troell; Kenne Fant (book)
Starring: Jesper Christensen, Pernilla August, Ulla Skoog
Release Date: June 20, 2014