Dear friends and readers,
In recommending this film (now playing in New York City and Los Angeles) as profound and significant, one has to talk of Nazism and the almost unspeakable acts done to the vast majority of powerless Jewish people that are rarely brought home to people anymore in all their terror, horror, realities. I would say that some knowledge of what happened, some sense, however child-like and superficial, was known to me from the age I came to consciousness – as a half-Jew I suppose.
I said to Yvette the other night in talking of an anthology I’m about 2/3s the way through now: Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Beseiged Community, edd. R. Lapides and A. Adeleson, that this sort of thing was formative to my outlook. At age 3 I spent 8 months with my Jewish relatives (my parents moved into a no-children allowed apartment), and from my time there I gathered from half-understood stories that people running a state (which many years later Jim defined to me as an area of land over which a group of people have an effective monopoly of violence) could just come to a person’s or family’s door, take whom they pleased away, put you in prison, a slave labor camp, do unspeakable things to (humiliate, torture) as well as slaughter. My uncle had a joke for when people came into my grandparents’ apartment: have you got your papers? Also the a Jew may be identified as someone with a suitcase packed behind the couch, at the ready.
Also what I saw in the Southeast Bronx growing up until age 10 — police who jailed those for doing what they were getting kickbacks to allow. People with bats, gangs of boys with razor blades, some half-crazed with something they couldn’t explain. People talk of their astonishment at this or that done by the US or some other state, at how in 1964 enough people in Mississippi were willing to or condone murder and destroy anyone who came into the state to register African-Americans to vote so as to get away with it. What is to be surprised at? What did the people who went down there suppose was going on there? how did the whites keep the blacks so subdued? (For what matter what still goes on there today — the actual murders of three young men have never been accused or tried.)
I want to contextualize The Last Sentence with these memories and Lodz Ghetto because many people don’t have a grasp of what quite Sederstedt was fighting to prevent the spread of, of what this means to daily life outside such places (without the excruciating detail unfolding before you you might not believe all that happened — not understand how unsafe you are too – ask not for whom the bell tolls …). The realities behind the 2 and 1/2 hour film make it great as well as important. It’s against the backdrop what such regimes as the Nazis create and what they were beginning to impose on Sweden (the 1940s version of a national security state, of endless control and spying, of silencing, of informers) that the courageous behavior of Torgny Segerstedt, journalist, with the backing of a brave editor and the money of his Jewish and strong wife, Axel and Maja Forssman, must be understood. Segerstedt withstood years of increasing pressure, threats, terrifying intimidation to writ in such an uncompromising way to expose the pernicious destructive (evil) behavior of the Nazi regime and to stand in the way of the the Swedish gov’t compromising with Hitler (much less collaborating).
I know I need to see the film at least twice just to understand fully each of the segments — based partly on history. Segerstedt’s daughter, who grew up to be an influential journalist herself has written a memoir that the film-makers used. I’ve not seen any other of Troell’s films, e.g., Everlasting Moments is one I hope to get from Netflix soon. Troell’s previous film, Hamsun, was about the exploitation of an aging Norwegian actor by the Nazis.
It’s a great film artistically too – and tells a gripping story about a group of characters as fully realized as in any Ingmar Bergmann film. An intertitle prefaces the film: the words say that no human being can bear much scrutiny close up. The film’s core emotional trajectory is Segerstedt’s private life: he is a cold austere man who left his position in university as a theologian to become a journalist because of his wife’s encouragement, but by the time we see them together, he is openly tired of her and enjoying a liaison with Maja Forssman. She is deeply hurt:
She cannot keep up with her formidable rival, Maja, a woman seeming as hard in her way as Segerstedt. We hear of how Segerstedt’s mother killed herself when he was a boy; meet an array of complicated people both in the news office, at parties (this is a world of upper class people and we see the servants serving them at elegant dinner parties and balls), sharp politicians. In passing characters make an impression: here is Maja’s sister-in-law whose interest in life is a function of her in-laws since she became a widow; the actress conveys the desperate glamor of this lonely woman:
We see all sorts of aspects of his personality which people will not see as particularly admirable that led him to keep up his fight: his egoism, his love of battle, his despising all sorts of powerful people, but also his kindness to servants and his three dogs. He has his dogs with him all the time but during sleep in his bedroom — Maja makes a joke of sharing him with them. I won’t be surprising anyone if I reveal one of the ways the Nazis went after him slowly was to first attack one of his dogs:
Some might protest against showing the clay feet of an idol. Not me. The film is satisfying because of the attempt at full truth. Women have the real full bodies of women; no one is made super-beautiful — indeed some of the actresses were dressed to look plainer than they are (the actress playing Segerstedt’s daughter, Ingrid Troell)
As usual I was not able to find online any stills of the far shots, settings, landscapes of the movie — these are among the most important parts of the experience. So I just have to say it’s shot in expressive black-and-white to give us the feel of the 1930s. I found delightful the exquisite recreation of older technology: we are in a newspaper office and watch type set up and pages printed off. We see close-up people snapping keys on large heavy 1930s typewriters. Phones of the era. All the paraphernalia it took to make a machine work and do its job — physical push, pull, hit. There’s a delight in seeing this. Quiet fun in the recreation.
It’s important to remember the film is not a documentary, but a fictionalized version of a life — so that much is shaped to make a point. At one point Torgny is got up as in costume as a Don Quixote tilting with windmills — and we get entertaining interactions between people in the way of much dramatized life-writing
The scenery is marvelous: the film opens with a sparkling steam of a river as we see leaves float by and it comes back to the leaves at the close. Interwoven are frightening clips of films of Hitler’s Germany at the time: the mass meetings at night, the huge groups of soldiers bearing down on people, the rituals, terrorized Jews and others herded into train cars, Hitler glimpsed with his dogs, Goering. The ominous huge gov’t palace in which the arrogant Swedish king lives; the upper class streets where the ministers meet. All carefully done, slowly so that you feel you are in life.
Slowly too unfolded are something of the history of how Norway and Finland fell to the Nazis. How Sweden managed to hold out. This is a story not many Americans know today any more. At the same time it’s a film that is meant to speak to us today: it’s also a defense of journalism, of free speech (what Segerstedt keeps saying he is enacting), and it shows how people inside gov’ts behave to one another.
How did I come to see it? Now that I have my license to drive back I joined a film club at a local art theater (Cinema Art) that once a month starting in May and carrying on to October meets on Sunday morning (at 10) to see unusual (and good) films — picked, introduced and afterwards discussed by Gary Arnold, a film critic for the Washington Post and other newspapers. The club has been going on for 7 years now. I was reluctant to leave Jim on Sunday mornings as until last year I was often gone from the house to teach part-time, went to libraries to do research, and sometimes a conference held in DC. But now there is nothing here to keep me at home. A reasonable price ($60 for what’s left — I missed two films); when you arrive there is a table for breakfast rolls and cakes and coffee ($1 an item). The atmosphere is pleasant, most of the audience seems older and what little talk there was was intelligent. Arnold said the film has not been booked anywhere outside these two cities as yet — so I write this blog well before I ought to (I ought to see more of the man’s films, see this film again first, know more about Scandanavia) in order to spread the word.
A review in the New York Times
Of course tells the kinds of truths people turn away from as excruciating, the anguish of the book is at times unbearable. As I say I’m at the same time reading Lodz Ghetto, which is hard not to turn your eyes from — the photos, what it tells happened toseveral thousands of Jews; I wanted to read this book after I watched Margareta von Trotta’s film on Hannah Arendt and began reading her Eichmann in Jerusalem. I wanted to have some sense of what Arendt was writing about. I now feel she is utterly justified in every sardonic and every sentence of loathing she wrote when she attended the trial and had to stare at and listen to Eichmann. The reviews themselves are so cold and cool, they shock me
It consists of actual documents, diaries, journals, scraps of paper recording what happened to these people herded into a filthy impoverished place with nothing around them, cut off from others (no radios, no cars — they had to be animals dragging carts), forced to live like subhumans, tortured, humiliated, terrified, starved into submission (and a few of the more desperate rebelling and if not immediately shot — most were -fighting on through strikes or “criminal” behavior for themselves). Partly it’s that the translations are so quiet and appropriate; nothing over-done, the voices let to speak. Now and again humor: one brief sketch of everyone holding on to their bowls (in order to be sure and have any soup going). The man at the head, Rumkowski is a plausible monster — his terrific negotiating skills and cold cruel lying heart kept the place going; it’s his sort that Arendt (righly in my view) abhors. One of his shibboleths to get the Jews to perform slave labor is the dignity of work. He did perish in 1943:
Some are of high literary quality: poets, writers, highly educated people reduced to absurd and difficult work (sometimes making armaments and garments for the Nazis), living in one room — they kept records and some survived. (A fairly recent poem in The Guardian by someone else who read this book or about this history — Carol Rumens.)
As I read I wonder why I should have been so naive about 15 years ago to talk of progress with respect to chattel slavery. The book has great moral power — the strongest holocaust book I’ve ever read since Primo Levi, whose If this is man and The Truce are after all but by one man and one memoir about his experience. There is something peculiarly different that happened here — different from the slaughters and massacres of Africa, even worse and different than the slave labor camps and Siberian places in Russia. A superfluous sadistic malevolence against an ethnic identity. It may not be unique the Nazies went beyond enslaving and treating others as subhuman animals. They did all they could to humiliate and torture a people en masse.
It’s important to say that as the situation evolves into the worse and worse — from mere hunger to starvation, from long hours of hard work to being deported to be slaughtered, through each indignity, each loss, seeing how even in this situation people attempt to cheat one another, extort more money than is due them — at the same time one witnesses in the sheer survival of so many, how much punishment they take, how they manage to keep order, make goods from trash, continue to show feeling for one another within families and friends terrific spirit and courage — sheerly to carry on the way they did, and some people did survive – and held on to some dignity and dreams.
Not many. This book — among others provides the needed understanding of what say Torgny Seregstedt was fighting — why you cannot ever dismiss his struggle whatever may be the various motives that drove him.
I don’t know if the film also has in mind showing us how evil feelings and behaviors can be constructed as acceptable everyday behavior in a fascist military oligarchy — and thus warn us about what could happen here — about groups of people called Tea Partyers. We are seeing in the US a strong push among those with power to do this to stop as many people from voting as possible. We are subject to an increasingly harsh unjust penal criminal prison system. Torture and drones have been and continue to be used. A young boy, son of someone accused of being a terrorist (and an American citizen) is murdered in a cafe in the middle east; the uncle tried to sue and recently gave it up.
The last sentence is the last sentence Segerstedt types on his typewriter before going out to walk with his dogs up a flight of stone stairs where he has a stroke.