'The Last Sentence' rises above the standard limitations of a biopic

'Sentence' centers on Swedish journalist and newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), who decried the rise of Nazism.

By , Film critic

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    Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) fights Nazism in ‘The Last Sentence.’
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The great 83-year-old Swedish director Jan Troell specializes in movies about men of great stature in furious conflict with both their countries and themselves. “Hamsun,” starring Max Von Sydow as the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian novelist and Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun, was perhaps the finest movie ever made about the chasm that can exist between an artist’s mind and heart. 

His new film, “The Last Sentence,” is about the crusading Swedish journalist and newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt (the marvelous Danish actor Jesper Christensen), who loudly decried the rise of Nazism and his own country’s policy of appeasement to Hitler. It covers the years from 1933 until Segerstedt’s death in 1945. What links the film to “Hamsun” is that it, too, showcases an imperiously proud and riven man, except that, unlike Knut Hamsun’s, Segerstedt’s politics are unimpeachable. It’s his life apart from politics that is not admirable. He is, in short, a human being and not a monument.

Shot digitally in handsome black and white, “The Last Sentence” does not have the all-encompassing richness of “Hamsun” (few films do), but it’s a work of consistent power and fascination. Although, like “Hamsun,” it’s nominally a “biopic,” Troell goes way beyond the standard limitations of that genre. He confounds our expectations. We think we’re going to see a rousing movie, set against a great historical backdrop, about a hero who stood up to iniquity. Instead, what we get is something far stranger: a portrait of the interior life of a man who could comprehend the fate of the world but not his own fortune. It’s a big movie, but in an emotional, not a historical, sense. Oftentimes it has the hushness of a chamber drama even when the world is its stage.

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Segerstedt’s long-suffering Norwegian wife, Puste (Ulla Skoog), who endures his long-term affair with Maja (Pernilla August), the outspoken, morphine-addicted Jewish wife of his publisher, Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), tells her husband, “Sometimes I wish you were more like your writing.” This is a severe understatement from a woman who recognizes, to her growing horror, that Segerstedt can no longer abide her. He is lost to her, a casualty of his causes and his obsessive entrancement with Maja. 

Segerstedt turned to journalism after a career as a theologian, and his enemies (and some friends) accuse him of transforming politics into a holy crusade. His highhanded ways can seem insufferable and yet, when he pontificates about Hitler being “a devourer of human beings,” his righteousness is impeccable. It is not only the Nazis who castigate him; so do the Swedish power brokers, who fear that his vitriol will drag Sweden into war. King Gustav V (Jan Tiselius), in a curt private meeting, tells Segerstedt he is “blinded by his hatred of Germany” and implies, without saying so, that he wants to help the Jews because of Maja. No compromise is possible for Segerstedt. For him, “evil is a fact.”

Troell, who also served as co-screenwriter and co-cinematographer, includes occasional newsreel footage of the war, and the effect is abrupt and alienating. It’s his attempt to create a “bigger” arena for his drama, but it only serves to point up the disjunction between the wider world conflict and Segerstedt’s life as it is portrayed. The letdown of the film is that, in the end, and despite some fine work from Christensen, Troell never entirely breaks through the man’s psychological armor. Segerstedt’s fraught relationships with almost everyone (he loved his dogs more than his family) suggest a man intent on martyring himself as penance for having lost his religious faith years before. And yet Segerstedt is too closed off to us (and everyone else) to allow this suggestion to resonate. It works more intellectually than emotionally.

We are nevertheless left with the certainty that Segerstedt was a great man, more so than he knew. Dying, he hangs on as the war is ending until he knows that Hitler has preceded him. “How quickly I passed,” he laments. “I have written in sand.” Troell’s movie, despite its lapses, is written in iron. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)

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