“The Last Sentence,” a biographical drama about Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt (1876-1945), exists for two equally valid reasons: its subject’s honorable public actions and his semi-tawdry personal life.
Though both facets of the man are interesting to different degrees, the tension between them is less compelling than writer-director Jan Troell seems to think — or at least manages to make them appear in his sturdy, if slightly dutiful, telling.
As editor-in-chief of a paper in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) made a name for himself in the years before and during World War II by repeatedly denouncing, in editorials, the actions of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. As Sweden’s neighbors Norway and Denmark fell to Nazi occupation, Sweden remained officially neutral, a noncommittal stance that was jeopardized by Segerstedt’s increasingly strident writings. Both King Gustaf V (Jan Tiselius) and Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson (Kenneth Milldoff) tried to get Segerstedt to back off, and, as shown in the film, the editor was subject to death threats.
At the same time, Segerstedt, who was married, was carrying on a fairly public affair with his publisher’s Jewish wife (Pernilla August). Shocking, perhaps, but certainly not unheard of — then or now — for a great public figure to be a so-so person.
As Segerstedt himself put it, in a quotation that opens the film, “No human being can withstand close scrutiny.”
For the first half of the film, which begins as Hitler is ascending to power in 1933, Troell focuses almost exclusively on Segerstedt’s relationships with his long-suffering wife, Puste (Ulla Skoog), and his coquettish middle-aged mistress, Maja. Unfortunately, this part of the film has a pulpy quality, made more prominent by the fact that Troell (whose 1971 film “The Emigrants” was nominated for five Oscars) is working in digital video for the first time. Though handsomely shot in high-definition black-and-white, the movie at times has the texture and visual feel of a period soap opera.
Its hero, by the way, is just not that nice of a guy. Troell illustrates that by alternating between scenes of pillow talk with Maja and scenes showing the strain on Segerstedt’s marriage. One features Puste pouring a cup of scalding tea on one of her husband’s beloved dogs, whom he seems to care about far more than her.
Although the second half of the movie shifts into a greater focus on Segerstedt’s public persona, it’s bogged down by increasingly frequent — and slightly silly — interludes featuring appearances by Segerstedt’s dead mother (and, eventually, additional female ghosts). It’s never entirely clear what, if any, unresolved Mommy issues Segerstedt is trying to work out.
The film’s subject was clearly a man of conscience, if a less than immaculate one. His principled statements about the evils of Nazism make him a hero. His love life makes him human.
Neither makes “The Last Sentence” an especially great movie. It’s a thoughtful and workmanlike portrait, but a less than profoundly moving one.
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At the Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains brief coarse language, nongraphic images of warfare and some mature thematic material. In Swedish with subtitles. 124 minutes.