Great leaders rarely make for good men. It’s a lesson that feels central to Sweden’s European Union Film Festival entry, The Last Sentence. Director Jan Troell, in trying to portray editor Torgny Segerstedt’s controversial helming of a Swedish paper during the Second World War, doesn’t shy away from revealing all of Segerstedt’s flaws while the nation’s literati celebrated him as a voice of reason.
Danish actor Jesper Christensen offers up a fiery public face for the editor as he condemns the growing Nazi rule in Germany in the early 30s and later tackles Sweden’s politicians and their position of neutrality while the rest of Europe was at war. But—and perhaps more to the point Troell was aiming for—Christensen fills Segerstedt’s private life with doubt, questioning his position as a champion, reason being Segerstedt’s troubled marriage and later on, his even more troubled affair.
The ghosts of Segerstedt’s wife and then lover join his mother in continuously picking away at the old man for all the ways he failed them, undercutting even his most bold demonstrations against growing censorship at his paper. As his lover, Maja Forssman (Pernila August), is told by her sister-in-law, a monument had been made of the man, and Troell shadows his black and white biopic with the implications of that, as much as celebrating Segerstedt’s courageous voice.
It doesn’t feel like much of a coincidence that the archived footage Troell uses of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power focuses so much on the cult of leadership he’d built around him. The same gnawing feeling in the gut is there at parties celebrating Segerstedt—at one point he’s even being paraded around a room, mounted on a ppier-mâché horse with a lance—and even as his friends celebrate him and all he’s done, the look on his lover’s face says more about how blind they are than what Segerstedt has achieved.
It feels like an meta depiction by the director, who wasn’t sure he wanted to do another film before being approached with Segerstedt’s story. There’s obvious hesitation about turning the man into a hero despite his being one of the brave few who spoke out against the horrifying crimes being committed right next to, and sometimes inside, Sweden and the government’s decision to look the other way. Even if it had not been filmed to match the archived footage, The Last Sentence would have stood in stark contrast to any North American telling of this story simply because it refused to paint Segerstedt as a saint—and tore down that imagery so literally.
But because of that approach, the film doesn’t always work. Segerstedt’s opening rebellion quickly gets swallowed by his affair with Frossman and the impact their flouted relationship had on his wife. It establishes that this black and white film will be full of grey, but as Segerstedt’s personal troubles increase, and the shrouded ghosts of mistreated women gossiping at his bedside keep growing in number, his good work is eclipsed by his selfish private life almost entirely.
The Last Sentence makes for a fantastic commentary on how we put our supposed heroes on pedestals and how much we tend to sweep under the rug for them—and despite being released in 2012, its appearance at this year’s festival feels timely. But as the film heads methodically and darkly through its two long hours and Segerstedt grows more unlikeable with each private scene, the hero worship is so thoroughly trampled that it becomes hard to care about his accomplishments at all.