Home Video Hovel: The Last Sentence, by Aaron Pinkston
Jan Troell is an internationally renowned filmmaker with two Academy Award nominations (writing and directing for The Emigrants) and has a film in the Criterion Collection (Everlasting Moments). He was also a complete blind spot for me. Though his newest film, The Last Sentence, isn’t considered to be among his best work, I can see why his filmmaking is so highly regarded. The Last Sentence is a quietly powerful film with a capital-i Important subject. It is expertly staged and shot with beautiful black-and-white cinematography. A more cynical take, however, would say that it is a stodgy and monotone film without much modern appeal. Unfortunately, this take isn’t entirely out of place. While this is an impressive production from a very competent filmmaker, I was left a bit cold.
Taking place in Sweden in the early 1930s, The Last Sentence stars Jesper Christensen as newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt, who writes a famous opinion piece calling newly-in-power Adolf Hitler an “insult” to Europe. History has obviously played this out, but at the time, this was an unpopular opinion that was met with a lot of political and social pressure. Whether it was a bandwagon being swept up in the glow of this powerful new figure or fear of challenging it, many Swedes didn’t want to rock the strong relationship they had with Germany. Most of all, they didn’t want to get on their bad side with an inevitable war soon coming. The Last Sentence begins with the article being published with strong optimism and charts how the ongoing pressure affects its author’s well-being.
The film is at its best when it leaves its historical context behind and focuses more on Segerstedt’s personal demons and family troubles. Most of the film’s emotional stakes are laid on Sergerstedt’s wife, played in a strong performance by veteran actress Pernilla August. By the time The Last Sentence opens, their marriage has already fallen apart, as they are no longer intimate and their attitudes toward each other have become spiteful and cruel. Segerstedt has turned to the outgoing and popular wife of a friend for romantic attention, an open secret in the small-knit intellectual community. Stemming from his deteriorating social relationships and sanity, the film has strange moments of fantasy which feel very much like an homage to Sweden’s most prolific filmmaker, but they don’t quite work here. Even the most touching instance of this, directly involving the film’s central relationship, feels too matter-of-fact, doesn’t call to itself to heighten the emotional power of its context.
Jesper Christensen doesn’t get many opportunities to lead a film, which is a shame. To lead a slow and serious movie like The Last Sentence, the leading actor absolutely needs authority, which Christensen’s stern and wrinkled face provides. Christensen’s austere command has always made him stand out in supporting roles and plays well for him here. As a writer and philosopher, Segerstedt is an internist, and the character needs to display emotion without speaking. This is a strength for the actor, with his striking, naturally pouting face, history and wisdom worn upon it. Many of his best acting moments throughout the film are reaction shots as he listens to his ailing wife or dissension among his colleagues.
The Last Sentence isn’t aiming for entertainment and it leaves a little to be desired. There is a time and place for this type of film, with its weighty and intellectualized subject and philosophical slant, but you have to be prepared for it. A higher sense of emotion, either sadness or anger, throughout the film would have been a huge benefit — the most emotional scenes of the film really pop, while everything else just crawls by. There are interesting ideas here and many strong qualities, but it doesn’t quite come together. Perhaps if the film was a more direct character study instead of half character study-half historical film or if it matched its more risky ideas with more emotional stakes it would have ultimately been more resonant for me.
The DVD release of The Last Sentence, from Music Box Films, includes a behind the scenes featurette by Yohanna Troell, actress and daughter of the filmmaker.