Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) in The Last Sentence (courtesy of Music Box Films)
World War II lasted only six years, but judging by the amount of films made about the time period, one might assume it spanned six millennia. In the decades following the greatest armed conflict known to man, there have been movies produced based on every front, every theater and seemingly every influential person involved in the war. Despite this incredible glut of material, filmmakers still to this day unearth new and ever-more obscure stories from this one period to give the feature treatment – a testament to both the amazing scope of the second World War and the incredible lack of creativity present in the movie business.
With this in mind, it could at first glance appear that Swedish drama The Last Sentence is scraping the bottom of the WWII barrel in telling the true story of a gruff newspaper editor attempting to rally public opinion against the Nazis. However, director Jan Troell and co-writer Klaus Rifbjerg manage to set their film apart by placing the war in the background and allowing the troubled protagonist to take center stage.
Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) is a warrior masquerading as a journalist. He is gruff, obstinate and utterly convinced of his unassailable rightness in all things, most of all his position on the growing threat of Nazism. When we first meet Torgny in the early 1930s, he is deemed a paranoiac extremist by many peers who find his vitriolic articles on Hitler to be premature. Luckily for him, Torgny has the unwavering support of his publisher Axel Forssman and Axel’s spitfire wife Maja.
Though Torgny’s professional career is on an upward trajectory, his home life is rapidly deteriorating. His wife Puste (Ulla Skoog) – a manic depressive still haunted by the death of their first son years earlier – longs for Torgny’s affection but is harshly rebuked time and time again, transforming their marriage into a grim war of attrition. We soon realize the root cause of the turmoil: Torgny has been carrying on a long-standing, outrageously open affair with Maja Forssman (Pernilla August).
From here, the film’s arc leaps into a melancholic , graceful swan dive downwards. As pre-war anxiety turns to the heat of conflict, the rabble-rousing journalist fights fiercely against do-nothing bureaucrats who wish to keep Sweden neutral, all while balancing a complicated love triangle with increasingly destructive ramifications. In effect, the outside world’s descent into madness parallels Torgny’s inner world as it is consumed by tragedy.
True to its Scandinavian origins, The Last Sentence is a melancholic film about stoic people fighting the urge to collapse. The period setting is rendered in stark black-and-white, adding a Bergman-esque quality to the proceedings. The performances are quiet and naturalistic, the dialogue sparse and understated. Despite this aesthetic elegance, however, there is an underlying current of sloppiness and apathy present, which keeps the film from hitting as hard at it could.
The foremost issue is the fact that the main character is extremely hard to get behind. Aloof and callous, Torgny emotionally manipulates the women in his life to the point of sociopathy. Though his cause of urging Sweden to fight the Nazis is a good one, it seems apparent that at least half of Torgny’s motivation therein is simply to further his career and cement his legacy. In addition, the device that is used to explore Torgny’s psyche – a recurring leitmotif of the lost women in his life returning as veiled ghosts – often feels inconsistent and arbitrary in its deployment.
On the whole, The Last Sentence is quite possibly the most interesting film to tackle World War II (albeit in a very roundabout way) since Polanksi’s The Pianist did way back in 2002. That being said, the film sometimes fails to stir up the pleasant sort of Sunday-afternoon sadness it aims to conjure, mostly due to the alienating coarseness of its unchanging protagonist.
The Last Sentence
Music Box Films
In select theaters June 20
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