‘The Last Sentence’

‘The Last Sentence’

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Pernilla August plays Maja Forssman in “The Last Sentence.” Music Box Films

In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3, we read that there is a season (zman) and a time (eyt) for every experience.

In 1954 Pete Seeger took these words, in part as a protest against nuclear weapons testing, and adapted them into a song that the Byrds made into a hit, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a decade later. Some commentators thought that the season – the “zman” – was a fixed period, and the “eyt” was the moment that is appropriate for an action. Kohelet goes on to lay out a time for every purpose under heaven, including “a time for silence and a time for speaking.”

Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell just as easily could have called his film “Silence or Protest” instead of “The Last Sentence.” At what point do you remain silent and when do you speak out? Is there a “zman” or an “eyt” that effects how you make your choices? In America, this issue was raised when protestors first questioned America’s role in Vietnam. Some saw these protests as un-American. For Mr. Troell, a defining moment for Sweden was during World War II, when surrounding countries either allied themselves with Nazi Germany or chose to fight tyranny. The Swedish government chose to close its eyes to what was taking place in its neighboring countries and remain neutral. Jan Troell’s “The Last Sentence” is based on the life of the activist journalist Torgny Segerstedt, who was editor-in-chief of one of Sweden’s leading newspapers. He chose not to be silent.

The 82-year-old Mr. Troell, one of Sweden’s foremost film directors, first caught our attention in 1971 with his five-time Oscar-nominated film “The Emigrants,” starring Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow. The director has been active since then.

This latest work takes a tough look at his country’s behavior during the war years, a topic with which filmmakers across Western Europe seem to be struggling. Just how much could have been done to thwart the Nazi advance across Europe? How compliant were governments when their countries were occupied or threatened by occupation? To be sure, when Jews think of Sweden, we think first of the safe haven it offered during the war. Several Bergen County residents are alive today because their families sought refuge in Sweden. When the evacuation and rescue of Danish Jewry was undertaken, Sweden was where they found asylum. And it was Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews in Budapest. Yet some critics point to today’s Sweden as the third most anti-Semitic country in Europe, after Austria and Germany.

“The Last Sentence” is not really about Jews, though a central figure is Jewish and we get hints of anti-Semitism. It is about what happens when a democracy, which has strict constitutional provisions for freedom of the press, comes under pressure and struggles with the question of whether to limit that freedom. Mr. Troell investigates those questions with the biopic of Mr. Segerstedt, beginning in 1933. With Hitler’s rise to power, the journalist immediately writes a scathing article, “Mr. Hitler is an insult.” We learn that Berlin is enraged and that Hermann Goring himself sends a threatening telegram to the editor; five days later an even more caustic editorial appears on the pages of the Swedish newspaper. From the beginning, the German-educated Mr. Segerstedt asserted that Hitler eventually would take Germany to war, a war that it would lose.

The film brings us into the war years, Germany’s attack on neighboring Norway, the Soviet Union’s alliance and then its break with Germany, and the pressures placed on the Swedish government to try and remain neutral. Throughout, the editor continues writing articles critical of Germany. Because officials fear that Mr. Segerstedt’s articles might be putting Sweden in danger, the journalist is summoned to meet with King Gustaf V and is “encouraged” to stop. When the editor refuses, the government sends in police to confiscate several issues of the newspaper. At this moment, the real question of when to speak out and when to be silent becomes central.

Torgny Segerstedt was out in the open about his extramarital relationship with the wife of his publisher, Maja Forssman, who was Jewish. The fact that Maja was Jewish drew critics to charge him with being too sympathetic to Jews. This complicated man was unbothered by scandal and criticism. In bringing Mr. Segerstedt’s story to the screen, Mr. Troell chose to focus on the impact that three women – his wife, his mother, and Maja, his mistress – may have had on his life. Even after they all died they remained alive in the journalist’s psyche, and Mr. Troell forces us to contemplate their impact.

Jan Troell’s effort to capture every moment of Mr. Segerstedt’s life sometimes interferes with the film’s flow. At times, the movie drags. This is a European film, and it that shows in the pacing. Mischa Gavrjusjov’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous; there are times when you want to pause the movie so you can study a specific image. The performances by Jesper Christensen as Torgny and Pernilla August as Maja are exceptional.

The questions posed by this extraordinary filmmaker remain relevant today as we ponder when is the time to be silent and when it is time to speak out.

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