Dead leaves, in brilliant black and white, float slowly by on the surface of a shallow stream as the credits roll up and Sebelius’s “Valse Triste” hums in the background, part dance, part dirge. Then suddenly the slamming of lead and steel. It’s the linotype. Hands on fire beat the keyboard, the lines of lead type fall into place, wheels churn and the newspaper pops out shouting truth to power.
The Last Sentence is one of the best, and most challenging, films about journalism, character and love.
It is Feb. 3, 1933, and in Germany Adolph Hitler has just come to power; the boldest response in Europe emanates from a newspaper in Sweden, Goteborgs Handels-och Sjofartstdning, which declares,“Mr. Hitler is an insult….” The editor Torgny Karl Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), who has led the paper since 1917, a one-time theologian who failed his doctoral exam,has replaced his religious belief with political liberalism and a single-minded fight against Nazism. He foresees a world war and, with the backing of his friend and publisher Axel Forssman (Bjorn Granath), makes the newspaper a strong voice against the background silence of a timorous Sweden.
Christensen’s square features and full gray hair appear to embody Segerstedt’s rock integrity and wisdom—though he looks older than early 60s of his character—while a weak-willed Sweden shivers lest the mighty Germany roll over Sweden after it marches across Poland and France. Hermann Goring personally expresses his outrage as the paper proudly prints another in-your-face editorial. Meanwhile, on screen, another dimension of Segerstedt emerges.
In 1905, while still a professor of comparative religion, Segerstedt married Puste Segerstedt, a Norwegian; they had four children, one, a son, who died at age 13, seven years before. On some level Segerstedt may love his wife, but he does not love her well. He has forbidden her to mention the lost boy and strikes her when she pleads with him for a little affection. He has taken a mistress, Maja, the more glamorous Jewish wife of his friend and publisher, who with Swedish detachment tolerates the infidelity. During a formal dinner party at their home for the elite of Swedish society, Torgny sits with Maja and freezes out his wife at the other end of the table. During the entertainment, following a piano recital, Maja, in an artificial display of affection, persuades Puste to sing. She sings Greig’s emotional “I Love You,” pleading for love from her husband who directs all his attention to Maja and his three faithful dogs.
Obviously director Jan Troell knows that dogs will love indiscriminately; in fact, as he uses newsreels to knit the storyline to world events, we catch a shot of Hitler loving his dog. We are beginning to see the other—the “real”?—crusading editor who, having frozen God out of his life, has replaced religion with righteousness and poisoned his relationships with those most dependent on his love. When Torgny reaches 65 his friends and supporters throw a gala in his honor, which ends with the presentation of a pen the size of a spear and a life-size paper mache horse, wheeled into the dining room for the now intoxicated crusader knight to mount and ride for their laughs and cheers. In 1940 he is summoned to the royal palace in Stockholm by King Gustaf V, who warns that the brazen editorials are putting neutral Sweden in danger.
Puste dies in 1934 of heart failure, and Torgny mourns too late. Maja, distraught over Hitler’s advance and conscious of the anti-Semitism in Swedish society, commits suicide in 1942. The ghosts of his women, some of whom whose love he has exploited—his mother, Puste, Maja and his secretary—appear to him in mourning veils. He drinks too much and suffers a stroke but keeps writing. As his health fades he is forced to ask himself whether he has written in sand. On his deathbed in March 1945 he asks his daughter and nurse whether Hitler still lives. He does, but they lie and tell him he has died. The man proud that he has always written the truth dies in peace based on a benevolent lie.
"The Last Sentence," a film by Jan Troell, opens in New York on Friday, June 20.