By Mike Dub
*Opens today at Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, and at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
If you didn’t know beforehand that Jan Troell’s period piece The Last Sentence is based on a true story, it wouldn’t take you long to figure it out. Laden with the kind of distracting stylistic elements common to so many biopics, the film maladroitly unveils the idiosyncrasies, political platforms, and backstory of its protagonist, anti-Nazi Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), in surprisingly uncomplicated expository terms.
Sergestedt was a famous and important journalist in Sweden during the rise of the Nazis and through the end of WWII. As depicted in the film, he wrote tirelessly of the moral debacle of Hitler’s rise to power and his oppression of Jews in Germany (and later throughout Europe). He was also a philandering husband, carrying on a long affair with Maja Forssman (Pernilla August), wife of the owner of the newspaper that Sergestedt wrote for. The Last Sentence deals in equal measure with its hero’s political fortitude and his affairs of the heart.
The dichotomy of those two subjects sets up the film’s promising first half, exploring Sergestedt’s dual personalities, one on the page and one in the flesh. Despite his vehement moralism, which leads him to endlessly lambaste the evils of Hitler in print, Sergestedt tortures his wife (Ulla Skoog, delivering a terrific performance) with his open love affair. A determined protector of free speech, and a man who celebrates a threatening letter from Joseph Goebells by framing it and putting it on his office wall, he refuses to confront the devastation wrought by his son’s early death – he won’t even allow his son’s name to be spoken in his presence. He demands Norway to take up arms in the world’s fight against fascism, but privately he isolates himself from nearly everyone, preferring the company of his dogs to that of his daughters and wife.
While the first half doesn’t quite work, it creates an intriguing setup. However, the potential of that setup goes largely unfulfilled. The second half of the movie gives way to worshipful proselytizing (directly to the choir), as Sergestedt verbally battles with a series of emasculated Swedish bureaucrats hellbent on passive submission to Hitler. They plead with him to stop writing such inflammatory pieces about Hitler, charging, in an all-to-relevant tone, that he is harming the nation’s security. But Sergestedt battles through the ranks of the government, like Lee Marvin knocking off members of The Corporation in Point Blank, all the way up to the King of Sweden.
In one of the most artificial-feeling sequences in the film, as the Swedes become surrounded by two mighty powers, the King advises Sergestedt, “We have decided that we’d rather be German than Russian.” Sergestedt replies, “I would rather remain Swedish!” Given the modern, Bergman-inspired style of the film, the declaration of patriotism doesn’t quite hit.
The Last Sentence succumbs to many of the pitfalls of biopics, including a clunky narrative structure that is more concerned about its characters histories than their development. Early in the film, when a housemaid inquires about Segerstedt’s batty wife, another maid responds, “Grief has made her ill. Their son died when he was thirteen.” Shortly after, during a party, someone asks Segerstedt about a seemingly uninteresting photo on his piano, to which he replies, “That’s my mother. She died when I was eight.” Segerstedt also spends a great deal of time conversing with the ghost of his dead mother, for little purpose outside of verbalizing internal conflicts we already see. Worst of all, the film suffers from an overzealous need to prove its protagonist’s importance (notice the tag line on the poster above). By concentrating on Segerstedt’s fight against the most evil regime of the 20th century, Troell has created a standard biopic figurehead: a brave and acceptably flawed hero whose character, unfortunately, lacks the depth of his convictions.