Last Sentence underlines journalists stance against Nazis, Swedish neutrality

In his personal relationships with women, Torgny Segerstedt frequently descended into abusive bullying. But in the public sphere, the Swedish journalist was an unwavering opponent of Nazism in the 1930s and ’40s.

Sweden’s ruling class had chosen expedience in the form of neutrality, hoping to avoid the malevolent attention Germany paid to most of Europe. But Segerstedt wrote a steady torrent of principled, unambiguous columns. Faced with extraordinary pressure at home to lay off lest an angry Hitler invade, Segerstedt refused to back down.

Torgny Segerstedt (played by Jesper Christensen) dances with Maja Forssman (Pernilla August), the Jewish wife of his publisher. photo/courtesy music box films

The great Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell explores Segerstedt’s admirable and flawed dimensions in the dialogue-heavy character study “The Last Sentence.” This beautiful and painful film, shot in black and white and screened at last year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and Mill Valley Film Festival, opts for enigmatic domestic psychodrama rather than the conventions and tension of a political thriller.

“The Last Sentence” opens Friday, July 11 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

 “Maybe you become a hero because you act in a certain way in a certain situation,” Troell mused during an interview in October during the Mill Valley Film Festival, citing Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s brave rescue of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.

“Segerstedt was very depressed during the period when Hitler came to power,” Troell said. “But when they had someone to fight — which he wanted,; he hated what Hitler stood for — then his depression disappeared. He was in a fighting condition. When you have something you believe in, it’s not so difficult, and you stand even stronger to fight it.”

Troell achieved international success in the early 1970s with the Oscar-nominated epics “The Emigrants” and “The New Land,” both starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann.

But the closest parallel to “The Last Sentence” in the director’s career is “Hamsun” (1996), a riveting portrait of another writer, Knut Hamsun. The popular Norwegian author (played by von Sydow) infamously supported Germany during World War II, driven by hatred stemming from England’s blockade during the Great War that resulted in Norwegian deaths from starvation.

“Segerstedt and Hamsun are two sides of the coin, in a way,” Troell said. “Funny enough, they have some similarities as characters. They were both very stubborn. In both cases, both films, it’s the character, the person behind these big actions, that is to me interesting.”

The filmmaker, who turns 83 this month, remains “fascinated by why people act this way or that way, about psychology and so on. … I was curious about Segerstedt’s character and there was a chance to get a clue to that.”

While it’s easy to see the rightness of Segerstedt’s boldly articulated, anti-fascist stance, it’s a challenge to fully grasp the courage it took to maintain his position.

“He became a threat to his own newspaper because the advertisers threatened to stop advertising, and that would kill the paper,” Troell said. “Then the government was fighting him because he was a danger to neutrality. Which he was, of course, because you never knew what Hitler could do when he was infuriated.”

Increasingly isolated, the journalist began an affair with Maja Forssman, the Jewish wife of his publisher. “We have a common battle,” she says in the film, although their relationship doesn’t appear to give much pleasure to either party.

It contributes to the humiliation of Segerstedt’s wife, though, and crystalizes the gnawing question posed by “The Last Sentence”: Does acting morally in public make up for treating loved ones badly in private?

“The Last Sentence” opens Friday, July 11 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in S.F. and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. (Not rated, 124 minutes, in Swedish with English subtitles)