Like his magnificent 1996 film Hamsun, Swedish director Jan Troell's latest bio-pic is a richly detailed portrait of a great man riddled with flaws and undone by adulation.
On the face of it, Torgny Segerstedt seems the very inverse of Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian writer revered, then reviled during World War II for his Nazi sympathies. Segerstedt, a former theologian turned high-living editor of a Gothenberg newspaper, made it his mission to put out the word about the threat posed by Hitler to his country, and to liberal democracy everywhere.
Sandwiched uncomfortably between Germany and Russia, both bent on conquest, Sweden nervously declared neutrality, abandoning neighboring Finland to the Russians and backing away from war with Germany. Segerstedt offered a lone dissenting voice, and he pulled no punches.
As played in The Last Sentence by Jesper Christensen, Segerstedt is a handsome lion of a man with a mane of white hair rising up and away from a broad brow. Not given to self-doubt, he beams a stern stare on anyone with sufficient nerve to disagree. A gifted orator on and off the page, Segerstedt denounces Hitler "an insult," and heaps scorn on politicians who opt for realpolitik in the interests of national security.
In the simplified way that World War II was a "good war," Segerstedt is a hero, just as Hamsun was a traitor. Troell is uninterested in such crude binaries, except to the degree that they muddy insight. Trying to discover what turns a man of principle into an rigid absolutist, Troell and his co-writer, Klaus Rifbjerg, build character not as the usual collection of static traits, but as an ungovernable skein of emotions spilling from a man's past into his troubled present.
Along with his unshakable courage and sense of purpose, Segerstedt is lugging a ton of baggage held over, it seems, from the loss of his mother when he was a boy. He's angry, arrogant and entitled. He loves wealth and power. His private life is a mess; collateral damage clings to him like dung to a beetle. Mired in a very public love triangle with Maja (Pernilla August), the wealthy, drug-addicted Jewish wife of his publisher (Bjorn Granath), Segerstedt treats his own fluttery wife (Ulla Skoog) with cruel indifference, ignores his smart but homely daughter, and all but abandons Maja for his good-looking secretary.
Women tend to die or fade away around Segerstedt. In a sly violation of the movie's classical realism, the ghosts of women he's lost or destroyed return, shrouded in black veils, to remind him that it was they who retooled him from a shy, gauche young student into the sophisticate that he is today.
Adoration has made everyone, Segerstedt included, forget that he's just a man. An award ceremony tips over into grim farce when the visibly aging journalist is carted around on a horse made of newsprint, brandishing a giant pen for a sword. Clinging to his paper steed for dear life, the anointed titan shrinks into a frightened Don Quixote. "Do you realize," a less besotted woman asks an abashed Maja from the sidelines, "that you've turned a human being into a monument?"
Midway through The Last Sentence, the movie segues between German propaganda footage of Hitler frolicking with his beloved dogs to scenes of Segerstedt lavishing affection on his own pets. The comparison is startling, and I find it hard to believe that a man as sensitive to nuance as Troell would stoop to equate the two men, whose sins differed — to put it mildly — in degree and kind.
But he makes a case against dividing the world into gods and monsters. Whatever their principles, they leave much human wreckage in their wake, a warning that remains relevant as we continue to ramp up our own whistleblowers into heroes or traitors.
Segerstedt's hatred for Hitler is not just political. It's personal, and even after he's felled by a stroke, he refuses to die until he's been reassured (as ever, by women fudging the truth to protect him) that the Fuhrer is dead. In the haunting image of leaves floating down a river that bookends this gorgeous black-and-white movie, are we meant to see just leaves, or a metaphor for two men swept along by history even when they think they're making it?