Few of us ever face a moral decision with life or death consequences, or that threatens to influence, however feebly, the course of history. This may be one reason why the moral calculations of men and women who lived during the rise of the Third Reich and the Second World War prove so durable as the subject of literature and film.
“The Last Sentence,” director Jan Troell’s account of a renowned Swedish newspaper editor, Torgny Segerstedt, who wrote early and forcefully against Hitler in his editorials, presents us with one such man. Yet instead of portraying this valorous figure as totally heroic, Troell does something more complicated — he presents a man whose personal life contains a strong dose of moral failure.
From Troell’s earliest frames, shot in the classic black and white of the period in question, we are in the hands of a master film craftsman. (Troell is best known in America for his award winning “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”) Simple but compelling images of leaves floating on the surface of a clear shallow stream strike a poetic but also a philosophical note: Is the image a reminder of the way in which most of us “float” on the surface of life led by imperceptible currents?
One hesitates to make too much of this, especially once the story proper begins. Torgny is already a man past middle age, with a mane of carefully combed white hair thrust off his high forehead. In the dignified stature of the handsome Danish actor Jesper Christensen, Torgny is at once a combative intellectual and writer-polemicist, fearless in attacking Hitler mere days after his ascension: “Herr Hitler är en förolämpning” (“Mr. Hitler is an insult”) he begins an article. The challenge has been laid down, and Hermann Göring responds with a threatening telegram. Axel Forssman, Torgny’s publisher and close friend, backs his aggressive stance and allows his editorialist to proceed in a further published response to Göring’s telegram.
But “The Last Sentence” does not settle for a narrative about an unstained noble crusader. Torgny’s complicated marriage to Augusta “Puste,” the mother of his several children who is haunted by the early death of an adult son, reveals Torgny Segerstedt to be a man at war with private duty.
Torgny is having an affair with Axel Forssman’s wife Maja, a vivacious and cultivated Jewish woman of charm, intelligence, and political conviction. Their liaison, as well a meeting of like minds, is barely hidden from their respective spouses — and only slightly less evident to their upper-crust intellectual set. It proceeds in plain sight at dinners and parties, where Maja arranges to seat herself always at Torgny’s side, even if it means pushing Puste off to the margins. Even Torgny seems indifferent to the public embarrassment of his wife, and to her private dependence on drugs; he is far more attentive to his three dogs who run alongside him, ever eager for his affection and approval. Like Puste, Torgny, too, is haunted: but in his case by the mother he adored, who comes to him as a ghost-figure of death in his dreams. Loved by this beautiful woman as a boy, the aging Torgny seems helpless before the sexual promptings of women who revere him for the brave intellectual he has become.
The slow revelation of how these two couples of mature years have arranged their roundelay is the heart of the film’s first half. Meanwhile, the growing geopolitical menace — the pinching of Sweden between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, as Stalin and Hitler come to their short-lived pact — plays as a backdrop to the private maneuvers of these sophisticated grown-ups. Lest we forget, Troell intercuts period newsreel footage at opportune moments.
If Hitler and the rise of Nazism at times take a back seat, the film returns eventually to the costs Torgny is willing to risk for his outspokenness — aided by Axel, his putative private rival. Torgny’s published defiance is also meant as a defense of Swedish honor, for as his country’s “neutrality” becomes formalized, the editorialist finds himself fighting his homeland’s entrenched establishment, including King Gustaf V, who fears for Sweden’s security in the face of Nazi aggression.
With Puste’s death, Maja’s position becomes even more elevated, with no evident damage to the enduring friendship between Torgny and Axel. Indeed, the film’s portrayal of a dying social caste with its upper-class rituals of formal dinners and at-home “musicales,” with socially imposed evening dress and a gentleman’s forbearance at being cuckolded by his otherwise honorable best friend — all these elements remind us that the entre-deux-guerre among the sophisticated European gentry was still a moment in which vestiges of 19th-century social forms were honored. This was so even as the world witnessed increasing 20th-century barbarity.
Troell’s film is a compelling portrait of a complex man fighting a lonely battle against an implacably evil foe. These days, we normally go to fantasy films to see such a battle waged, often played out in images of handsome knights in magical universes. But Troell is not playing in the world of dystopian or future fantasy, but in a traumatic past, receding to a pinpoint as its last survivors die off; it was an historic moment as real as our own where even good people lived ethically imperfect lives.
Played by a distinguished cast — in addition to Jesper Christensen as Torgny, there is Pernilla August as Maja, Ulla Skoog as Puste, and Björn Granath as Axel — “The Last Sentence” takes the measure of a good but by no means stainless man in a society eagerly protecting its prerogatives. Given the gravity of the period in which it is set, the film has a surprisingly ironic but not exactly buoyant tone. It is a master work from a director in the late autumn of his career.