The Swedish film “The Last Sentence” opens with a 1933 newsreel of Adolf Hitler strutting as Germany’s new chancellor and ends with 1945 footage of Russian troops closing in on the Führer’s bunker.
During those 12 years, as Hitler first threatened and then swallowed one European country after another, one Swedish journalist defied his government by relentlessly attacking the Nazi leadership from the moment it assumed power.
His name was Torgny Segerstedt, a theology student turned journalist and, ultimately, editor of a leading liberal newspaper in Gothenburg. On the day of Hitler’s ascension to power, Segerstedt wrote that the new German leader was “an insult” to his country and Europe.
Segerstedt kept up his barrage week after week, predicted that Hitler would plunge Europe into war and named his pet bulldog “Winston” in honor of Churchill, another early Nazi foe.
After a few more choice observations by Segerstedt, such as “the devil is synonymous with Hitler,” an enraged Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering sent a telegram to the Swedish prime minister declaring that any more such editorials would upend Germany’s “good will” toward Sweden.
The Swedish government was worried, but Segerstedt was not cowed. In one editorial, he denounced his country’s silence on the passage of the Nazi anti-Semitic laws, writing, “We are responsible for what we say and for what we do not say.”
Following the outbreak of World War II, German armies easily overran Denmark and Norway, while a third Swedish neighbor, Finland, battled Soviet invaders.
Seeing threats on all sides, the Swedish government enforced a policy of strict neutrality and introduced press censorship. Initially, the censors excised some editorials, to which Segerstedt responded by leaving the space blank; later the authorities would seize the entire run of an offending paper.
At the same time, the highest Swedish officials ratcheted up the pressure on Segerstedt. “Don’t drag Sweden into war,” pleaded the prime minister, noting that he was receiving reams of hate mail about the “Jew lackey.”
Finally, the journalist was bidden to an audience with King Gustaf V at the royal palace in Stockholm. “If Sweden gets into the war, it will be your fault,” the monarch warned Segerstedt, and when the latter tried to raise moral arguments, King Gustaf noted snidely, “We know why you are defending the Jews.”
Ah, the Jews again — how did they get into the picture?
The answer lies in the film’s alternative plot, which dilutes the straightforward story of one man’s moral courage in speaking truth to power into a rather soggier plotline of love and infidelity among middle-aged couples.
Segerstedt had married a worldlier Norwegian girl when he was a young theological student, but, in his late 50s, he became involved in an affair with Maja Forssman, the wife of his publisher and best friend.
A wealthy woman, Maja was also rather imperious (“I take what I want”) — and Jewish.
In the film, shot in black-and-white, Segerstedt is portrayed by Danish actor Jesper Christensen (“Melancholia,” “Nymphomaniac”), who bears a startling resemblance to the real-life character he portrays.
Segerstedt’s handsome, patrician face and bearing, on top of his intellectual gifts, made it quite understandable that, even in his mid-60s, he attracted women and reciprocated their affections.
The film notes that Segerstedt wrote 10,000 articles in his life and made as many enemies. His liaison with Maja (Pernilla August) handed his foes a handy anti-Semitic cudgel.
In a Skype interview, the film’s director, Jan Troell (“Everlasting Moments,” “The New Land” and “Emigrants”), turned back a suggestion that he had dragged in his protagonist’s love life to add some pizazz to the sober story of a journalist’s struggle against authority.
“I followed the biography and available material on Segerstedt closely,” Troell said. “We know that a man can be a hero in one aspect of his life but less admirable in another.”
“What is interesting is the contrast between the official persona and the full human being,” added Troell’s daughter, Johanna, who served as her father’s “adviser [and]go-fer” and plays a small role in the film.
In the film, as Segerstedt nears the end of his life, his one wish is to outlive his nemesis, Hitler. In the final days of World War II, it’s a close call, but, at least on the screen, Segerstedt gets his wish.
“The Last Sentence” opens June 20 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, and on June 27 at the Town Center in Encino and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena