Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Perils of Resistance: The Last Sentence and This Life

Pernilla August and Jesper Christensen in The Last Sentence

One of Toronto’s less acknowledged film festivals, the European Union Film Festival, is just wrapping up its tenth edition (it ends today). Somewhat fanciful in nature, it is comprised of entries, one per country, from the 28 countries who comprise the European Union. (Countries that never joined the EU, like Norway and Switzerland, are unrepresented here. Admission is free, though this year patrons are being allowed to book specific films online if they commit to a $10 donation.) But there is no overarching theme in the programming, which can include features, documentaries, even shorts (last year’s UK program) from this year or recent years. Nevertheless, as in most film festivals, themes can be found. The two Scandinavian movies I checked out, Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence and Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis’s This Life, hailing from Norway’s neighbors, Sweden and Denmark, respectively, both deal with resistance against the Nazis and tell little-known stories about genuine heroes. But only one of them attains the level of art.

The Last Sentence (2012) (Dom över död man in Swedish, which translates as Judgement on the Dead; neither title is memorable) begins with a newsreel of Hitler in 1933, just risen to power, unspooling in a Swedish movie theatre and then pans to the visage of an angry elderly man, who is practically jumping out of his seat in rage at what he sees on screen. That man is Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen, Melancholia, Nymphomaniac: Volume 1), editor-in-chief of Göteborgs Handels-och Sjöfartstidnin, one of Sweden’s most liberal newspapers and a diehard critic of Nazi Germany. That stance initially serves him well, as his fellow Swedes, like him part of the country’s elites, are of similar inclination; but when World War Two erupts and Sweden worried about the twin threats of the Soviet Union, which has just attacked its neighbour Finland, and Nazi Germany, which makes noises about occupying the country opts for neutrality and appeasement, Segerstedt begins to find himself the odd man out. His card playing cronies, including Sweden’s prime minister, his society friends and even the Swedish King start pressuring him to tone down his anti-Nazi editorials, lest he jeopardize his country’s security and freedom. But Segerstedt is adamant that he will practice his democratic right of free speech come what may.

Filmmaker Jan Troell
What makes The Last Sentence particularly compelling and memorable is that Troell, who co-wrote the film with Danish writer Klaus Rifbjerg, who brought the story to him, never sugarcoats the man. Segerstedt’s anti-Nazi stance is undoubtedly heroic, but he’s more than a bit of an asshole in his personal life. He is is brazenly carrying on an affair with his publisher and best friend’s wife Maja (Pernilla August) and treats his dogs better than his long suffering wife Puste (Ulla Skoog), whom he can barely tolerate. The fact that he is still reeling from the loss of his teenage son to tetanus is no excuse for Segerstedt’s boorishness. The point, of course is that good people can still behave badly and that heroes aren’t necessarily always admirable. In that light, The Last Sentence is thus an apt bookend to Troell’s earlier film, and masterpiece, Hamsun (1996) which movingly chronicled the life of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun (author of Hunger, 1890, and Victoria, 1898), who through a startling naïveté actually supported Hitler during his occupation of Norway. Hamsun (Max von Sydow) began the film as a fool and traitor but soon was revealed to have understandable, albeit misguided and supremely wrongheaded reasons for his behavior, acts he later came to bitterly regret. The indelible scene where Hamsun meets Hitler and quickly realizes what kind of man the German dictator really is makes that point admirably. (In The Last Sentence, the Swedes who want Segerstedt to stay quiet have legitimate reasons to be concerned about him; they’re ultimately wrong, as one must remain true to one’s moral beliefs, but the possible consequences of Segerstedt’s tough-minded editorials should the Nazis use them as an excuse to invade Sweden are quite tangible and genuine.) Troell’s fine films, also including As White as in Snow (2001), a tragedy about Sweden’s’ first female aviator, and Everlasting Moments (2008), an impressionistic account of a stifled working class woman in early 20th Century Sweden who wins a camera in a lottery and becomes a photographer, have a similar, emotional impact as they showcase real people, warts and all. (Regrettably, the only films of Troell's to have an international impact were his early films The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), epics about Swedish emigration to America, which I don't believe are available on DVD in North America. And of his recent movies, including The Last Sentence, only Everlasting Moments had a commercial release in Canada. This is one great moviemaker, who outside of film festivals – The Last Sentence snagged Troell a best director award in Montreal – virtually no one knows.)

That The Last Sentence is shot in ravishing black and white – Troell shares cinematographic duties with Mischa Gavrjusjov – does evoke comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s superb Schindler’s List (1993), which is not inappropriate. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), the German industrialist who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, also comes across negatively at first, until Spielberg gives him a reason for caring – his noticing a little girl lost among the panicked Jews in a ghetto – but Spielberg almost undoes the movie near the end by giving Schindler a (fake) speech where he laments not doing more to save the Jews, the one sentimental flaw in the film. Troell never succumbs to sentiment in The Last Sentence. Segerstedt also has regrets but his primary concern is over preserving his reputation – which he fears may not survive his death, as people forget, all the more so if the Nazis were to win the war. But he also knows that he’s been a shit to those he loves, including his dutiful daughter Ingrid (Johanna Troell) who can’t abide her parent’s marital difficulties, but he, nevertheless, acts powerless to behave differently. (The film takes some dramatic license, as all historical based movies invariably do, as Torgny and Puste also had a grown son, who is absent here.) Nor does Troell spare his countrymen’s ambivalent feelings about Sweden’s Jews. Their laudable sheltering of occupied Denmark’s entire Jewish population is, for some odd reason, not mentioned in the movie – it ought to have been – but their praise of Sweden’s ‘excellent’ Jews (including Segerstedt’s mistress, Maja ) as compared to Berlin’s not-so-wonderful lot is a barbed commentary on their genteel anti-Semitism. Segerstedt also periodically talks to his dead mother, a ghostly apparition which is likely Troell’s nod to his famous filmmaking compatriot Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal (1957), Fanny and Alexander (1982)) and one that ought not to work – it’s since become a filmic cliché – but does.

Anchoring all this is Christensen’s remarkable lead performance; he makes the imperious, prickly Segerstedt into a truly tragic figure who stood proudly tall for what he believed in, yet failed miserably in so many other aspects of his life. I don’t know if even Swedes know about Segerstedt and what he did during the war but, if they don’t, they should. Fortunately one of Sweden’s, and the world’s, finest filmmakers brought his story to our attention. If this turns out to be Troell’s final film – he is 83 now and hasn’t made a movie since – The Last Sentence will be a terrific swan song to a too often anonymous but creatively stellar career.

Facing 'justice' in This Life

I once interviewed filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, director of a powerful documentary called Weapons of the Spirit (1989), about a French village called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon that saved some 5000 Jews from the Nazis – Sauvage was born in Le Chambon – and he said something that has stuck with me since. Heroes, he pointed out, contrary to the Hollywood stereotype, just act; they do not spend their nights wondering if they should do the right thing or engage in agonizing self-reflection about what they ought to be doing. That type of matter of fact heroism is the one aspect of This Life (Hvidsten gruppen, 2012) that rings emotionally true. The brave Danish family at the centre of the movie, whose subheading is "Some Must Die, So Others May Live," who decide they cannot do anything but resist the German occupiers of their country, simply, even stubbornly, adopt this approach despite entreaties from many of their fellow Danes not to do so. In fact, they actually take more risks than Torgny Segerstedt ever did – they face the death penalty for their acts; comparatively, despite some threats against his life, which come to naught, Segerstedt only paid the price of ostracism and shunning for his anti-Nazi stance. But This Life, telling the true story of ‘The Hvidsten Group’, comprising an innkeeper, his family and some fellow villagers, many of whom paid the ultimate price for their resistance, manages to reduce its heroes to heroic types, less individuals than symbols of good allied against Nazi tyranny. As such, it’s not as emotionally fraught at The Last Sentence nor as dramatically involving.

Even an early (stilted) scene in the film wherein arguments are raised against resistance – despite saving their Jewish populace from the Nazis, a remarkably singular act during WWII, Denmark generally cooperated with its German masters – is set up only to make its heroes look good. No real quarter is given to those who, understandably, fear retribution from the brutal Nazis, though the resisters generously grant grace to those who opt out of their anti-Nazi plans, which eventually consists of hiding weapons and the occasional resistance fighter, dropped into Denmark by British airplanes. (The Danes have it easy at first since the German soldiers stationed in quiescent Denmark tend to be lackadaisical and inattentive and not the ruthless types who would be posted to more dangerous areas.)  And the contrary suggestions to resisting the Nazis disappear right afterwards in this sloppily written movie (by Ib Kastrup, Jørgen Kastrup and Torvald Lervad), as do those opposing villagers themselves. That omission makes no dramatic sense as their views play a large part in the fate of those who resisted later on. (This Life doesn’t manage to balance the personal and the political nearly as well as The Last Sentence did.)

Since This Life, unlike The Last Sentence, fails to achieve genuine resonance or give a deft sense of the eddies and swirls of the rural town in Jutland where it is set, the movie is eventually boiled down to a mere ‘Will the Nazis capture our heroes or not?” template. Of course, we know what will happen to these men and women so as a dramatic underpinning of the movie, that suspenseful scenario – though reasonably effective – eventually hits a wall. By film’s end, as the resisters nobly face German ‘Justice’, feel-good moviemaking is the order of the day. Oh, they show some weakness in the face of possible death, but not too much nor are they allowed to behave badly. That’s simply not interesting, believable nor compelling. Again, The Last Sentence rings truer in its storytelling.

I’m not surprised This Life was the number one grossing local film of 2012 in Denmark; no doubt, it makes Danes feel good about themselves, even if the tale of 'The Hvidsten Group’ was atypical – and it likely was. Admittedly, the movie is well made and acted but Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis’s direction is still pedestrian
and uninspired. Unlike Jan Troell, a real talent, who brought his prickly protagonist to vivid, indelible life, This Life, ultimately, fails to do justice to these unique folks who deserved to be commemorated properly. Riis and company have actually made them seem less then they undoubtedly were.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course My Favourite Movies – And Why.

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