Compromise is the engine of survival in The Last Sentence; it dictates the trajectories of nation, family, and identity, and any attempt to rally against it endangers life itself. Veteran filmmaker Jan Troell builds his film as a study of stalemates and their implications, filtered through the icy perspective of Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), the leftist Swedish newspaper editor who became one of the earliest and most impassioned critics of the Nazi regime. Sweden’s fragile neutrality throughout WWII—sustained by a series of small accommodations to both the Axis and Allied sides—is here a metaphor for one man’s own ideological and emotional stasis. Even as he rages in vain against a government that censors his work and sidesteps moral decision-making, Torgny himself bullishly evades the repercussions of an ongoing affair with his co-worker, Maja (Pernilla August), that’s slowly destroying his wife, Puste (Ulla Skoog). For both nation and man, security supersedes morality, and fearful inaction sustains life at the expense of livelihood.
Torgny’s political efforts have a black humor to them, with his heroic intentions at odds not only with his country’s passivity, but also his own hostile and immature behavior. His verbal and physical assaults against peers and authority figures illustrate the inevitable coupling of righteous anger with alienation and dissatisfaction, while his emotional response to the death by poisoning of one of his beloved dogs impishly reveals the child couched within a man of esteem. Torgny isn’t the only character to suffer debasement: Puste’s slow broil of anger, desperation, and self-loathing culminates in a moving and supremely uncomfortable sequence in which she warbles her way through a Norwegian love song, her eyes locked on Torgny’s unmoved face, before a packed room of embarrassed guests. It’s her invitation for him to end one of the film’s many stalemates, and it unsurprisingly goes unnoticed.
The Last Sentence suffers from the same problem as its protagonist: Though ambitiously busy, it’s also self-sabotaging and stagnant, showcasing Torgny’s struggles without interpreting them into a cohesive thesis. The two dominant narrative trajectories, Torgny’s love triangle and his political crusade, are jarringly dissociated in execution despite their clear thematic parallelism. The former is a quiet Bergman-esque tragedy, the latter dark Sisyphean slapstick, and while coherent and often powerful as isolated narratives, they never achieve a true dialogue. News reports and archival footage manifest the idea of war, but not the weight of it, as half the characters seem completely oblivious to the threat looming over them. Similarly, the romantic arc reaches a resolution of sorts by The Last Sentence’s midway point, but does nothing to inform the remainder of the film, to the point of near-inconsequentiality. Ultimately, this lack of connective tissue prevents The Last Sentence from becoming much more than a very handsome presentation: full of ideas and gestures, but lacking the alchemy to unify them.