The setting of the 2012 Swedish movie The Last Sentence (which opens in limited U.S. engagement on June 20) is Goteborg, Sweden. The story occurs just as Adolf Hitler is rising to Nazi power in Germany and soon Sweden must decide its future and choose – or not choose – between the Nazi dictatorship and Soviet dictatorship as both menaces converge on Scandinavia. Torgny Segerstedt, an academic who writes for the city’s newspaper, hates Hitler but he loves, or in any case fixates upon, dogs, women and, most of all, his mother, who is dead, though he sees her in various youthful apparitions.
Oscar-nominated director Jan Troell (who wrote the screenplay) unfolds this strange, evocatively photographed biopic with as much sense of purpose as one can have for such a thematically mixed plot. As Swedish intellectuals vacillate between ignorance and acquiescence and migrate toward their leaders’ true philosophy of appeasement, Torgny (Danish Jesper Christensen) dares to speak out against the Nazis in biting words for his newspaper column. Of course, the married Torgny and Jewish Maja (Pernilla August), wife of his newspaper’s publisher, carry on an affair which may complicate his later attempts to defend his right to speak and write freely in a nation known for quieter causes.
This black and white epic, The Last Sentence, is curiously engaging for the prospect of a drama about the lone journalist against his own country. The trailer exploits this expectation. But it’s Torgny’s affair, and how it entraps two married couples in complicated lives, that dominates for the first hour or so, as slowly, glacially, Nazi Germany casts a cloud over Europe and Sweden. The columnist, never far from his three dogs, is bitter and cruel to his mentally unstable wife, who still grieves for their dead child, and as he beds the energetic Jewess Maja with abandon, he writes up a strong if singular voice of dissent to the gathering fascist storm.
Sounds timely and irresistible, doesn’t it? With a confiscation of printing presses, Swedes who choose to see nothing and hear nothing and an application of strychnine that recalls an awful scene from Cabaret, The Last Sentence in certain segments almost is.
But it isn’t and here’s why: Christensen’s Torgny, whether from Troell’s direction or script or at the actor’s own discretion, is too sour to be either effectively plausible as an intellectual influence or sufficiently sympathetic as an exceptional man with exceptional sexual needs. Mrs. Segerstedt can be cruel, too, and it is easy to see how these two drifted apart toward an angry marital state, but with a semi-permanent sneer as his facial expression and an uncomplicated proclivity for his mother, Torgny’s tortured existence tears the life out of the character and the fight out of the film.
What’s left unexamined is his inner life as an intellectual, apparently a scholar of comparative religions, how he came to defy the stubbornly non-confrontational ethos of his country and what relevance of any significance this has to do with his mommy issues. When one writer takes on the rise of Nazis in a nation where many look down on Jews and even the king would rather kneel before stormtroopers, the movie should be ripe with dramatic tension. But when the prime minister in an excellent scene finally tells Torgny over a meal: “You endanger national security with your writings”, I found myself coming up empty of empathy for Sweden’s most prominent anti-Nazi. Any movie with a main character opposing Nazis that expresses unrelated mental torment in the same character undermines both subplots.
As it is, the real Torgny Segerstedt may have been a true champion and utterly in turmoil at the same time but as it plays in the picture the two are really disconnected and it has the effect of dramatizing the theme that the only happy Swede is the Swede who plods along without much serious thought, not unlike the three dogs in The Last Sentence, content to look upon the oddly conflicted crusader getting all worked up about Hitler and the Nazis. That said, in the later and final scenes, there are beautiful shots and touches and great lines, including a reference to the Icelandic saga Havamal, the appearance of a child near the skull and crossbones and scenes of Nazis with their German shepherds symbolizing the real dogs of war. Torgny, ending up with three women in his life (not including the Freudian mother) and three dogs, with an overwrought reference to Don Quixote with a horse and lance, culminates with an insular, diluted, remote charge against injustice.