Last week I had the great privilege of interviewing the Swedish director Jan Troell when he came to the Chicago International Film Festival for the U.S. premiere of his new movie The Last Sentence. This screening was hot on the heels of the world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival where Troell deservedly won the Best Director prize. Unfortunately, Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman and one of the greatest living filmmakers, remains too little known outside of Scandinavia. In the U.S. he is probably best known for his early 1970s masterpieces The Emigrants and The New Land, a long out-of-print two-part epic starring Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman, and Everlasting Moments, his terrific 2008 film, which is available in a superb Blu-ray edition via the Criterion Collection. The Last Sentence is a worthy addition to Troell’s body of work; it tells the powerful true story of Trogny Segerstedt – brilliantly played by the Danish actor Jesper Christenson – a Swedish journalist who crusaded against Hitler from 1933 (long before it was fashionable) until the end of WWII.
Jan Troell is more vigorous and youthful-looking in person than his 81 years might lead one to believe; although he told me he thought Everlasting Moments might be his last film, he has also recently spoken of beginning a new film, an autobiographical drama based on his family’s relationships with their maids over the years, that one hopes will come to fruition. During the course of our nearly 30-minute face-to-face chat, Troell was soft-spoken, forthright and very friendly. The last thing he said to me during the interview is a compliment I will always cherish. Accompanying Troell to CIFF was his whip-smart daughter Yohanna, who is in the process of finishing a documentary about the making of The Last Sentence. Yohanna occasionally made valuable contributions to our conversation and, less frequently, helped her father translate a stray word or two of Swedish into English. One also hopes that she will continue in her father’s formidable filmmaking footsteps.
MGS: Your best-known films are period pieces. Is there something you find especially compelling about making films set in the past?
JT: I know that I’m a very nostalgic kind of person. I think it’s a great pleasure – this sort of feeling of living in another period that for some reason fascinates me. That I guess is one reason. But the most practical reason is I started out with an epic film by a Swedish author, Here is Your Life, and that led to another big epic film, The Emigrants, which I was asked to do. So in a way I ended up in this niche, so I got other offers of that kind. But there are a couple of feature films that are contemporary too and I also all the time work parallel with documentary short films.
MGS: So you’re saying producers think of you as someone who does period films?
JT: That’s one part of it, yeah.
YT: I guess it also has to do with the fact that you make a lot of films about real people who have lived and you’re fascinated by their stories and usually they’re dead by now. (laughs)
JT: I think it’s fascinating to try to get inside people who really existed once, to get to know them. I also feel very comfortable having something I believe in myself. I believe in the story. It’s not the result of some other person’s imagination. That’s part of it. And so there are several different reasons for it.
MGS: What initially attracted you to Trogny Segerstedt as a subject for a movie?
JT: That it came at a very crucial moment in my life. I was offered to do it. I had just finished the film before (Everlasting Moments) and it might very well have been my last film because it’s not easy to get a film through. It takes years. And so I welcomed the invitation and the invitation came from the author of a biography (on Segerstedt) who’s name is Kenne Fant, who was also the head of the Swedish film industry who produced so many of Ingmar Bergman’s films. And he was also the head of that company when I made the first feature film Here is Your Life and The Emigrants and The New Land and so on. So we knew each other rather well.
MGS: You said in the documentary Troell’s Magic Mirror that in 1940 the Swedish people were very afraid Germany might invade Sweden. And you said you think that affected your personality as a child. Did you use any of your own memories of that time in the making of The Last Sentence?
JT: Just the feeling of it – the people, the way they looked and so on. I’m sure this film gives a very good feeling of the period. But the real memories of the war started with the war. I remember very, very well seeing the headlines in the street when I was walking to go swimming. It was a very hot day. And the letters on the papers were as big as this (holds fingers six inches apart). It just said “WAR.”
MGS: There was a moment early on in the film that surprised me where a character says that the Swedish Jews are more cultivated than the German Jews. But it made sense because I thought this must be how people in Europe outside of Germany rationalized the persecution of the Jews in Germany. Was that a widespread feeling in Sweden at the time?
JT: Yeah. I think also that many of the Jews in Berlin, they came from Poland and were poor people. This line in the film is taken word-by-word from what this man who says it in the film had written in a letter to Segerstedt as early as 1932. So I had it from the page. He (also) says “If the Jews are annihilated, it would not be good for business.” (chuckles in disbelief)
MGS: Wow, that’s scary. Something else that surprised me was seeing how forceful Segerstedt’s language was in denouncing Hitler as early as 1933. Today it’s common to hear people say that no one knew what a threat Hitler posed until it was too late and yet 1933 was early in Hitler’s career. Segerstedt clearly knew very early on . . .
JT: From the very first day. He wrote this article maybe five days after Hitler came to power. But he had written some article already in the Twenties warning for Hitler.
MGS: I’d like to ask you about the visual style of the film. It looks very different from Everlasting Moments, which had a lot of film grain and very warm colors. The Last Sentence was shot in digital black and white and the images are very clean and crisp. Is it important for you to try and do something different in terms of style each time out or does the style grow out of the subject matter?
JT: I think the style grows out of the subject, definitely. First, I wanted to shoot on 35 but we couldn’t afford that. We didn’t have enough money. So I had to decide on Super 16 as we had on (Everlasting Moments). We made tests on 16 and on 35 and I was more or less persuaded to try a new camera – Alexa. I said it’s almost like a real film camera. I didn’t intend to use that (initially) and then I saw the tests. There was no question about it. The Alexa was even better than the 35. It’s so sensitive to light that you can shoot in almost no light at all. And also it’s made to, if you shoot digitally, you can add the 35mm feeling, that it’s not 100% crisp. You get the grain. You can put any kind of grain on it.
MGS: In camera or in post-production?
JT: Afterwards. And we talked about that. We thought we would make tests but I decided not to because I liked this very exact feeling for this film. And that was my very vague thoughts from the beginning; I didn’t want any handheld camera, I didn’t want a lot of movements – in a way like he (Segerstedt) was.
MGS: Right, so it reflects his personality. There’s a great quote from Liv Ullmann where she said she never knew what you were shooting during The Emigrants because you were always holding the camera in your hands and panning around with it. In The Last Sentence, the style is more static and, like you say, exact. Is there any camera movement in the film? I can’t remember.
YT: Yeah, there is. But you don’t notice it.
JT: Oh, yes. Of course, I pan and so on but not many traveling camera shots.
YT: I made the behind-the-scenes film and I interviewed the actors and they’re all saying the same thing. Even in this film, for instance, Pernilla August, who plays Maja (Segerstedt’s mistress) and Jesper, of course, they’re talking about how it always keeps them on their toes because, even though they’ve made up exactly how they’re going to do it, they never know . . . My father might stop on the way, and then he comes to them, and so it’s still like shooting a documentary.
MGS: So they still don’t know exactly what he’s going to do?
JT: That’s one reason for me operating the camera myself. Because I don’t have to decide 100% in advance how or if to move the camera. I always get a focus puller who knows the way I work so he’s prepared to change the focus. It depends on what’s happening in front of the camera; suddenly I feel I should go here or there.
MGS: You go with how you feel in the moment?
JT: Not completely but very much, yeah.
MGS: One movie I thought of while watching The Last Sentence was Gertrud by Carl Dreyer. Was that an influence on you at all?
JT: Oh yes, I’ve seen it but, well, you never know where you get the influences from. I hadn’t thought of that.
MGS: There was something about the quality of the black and white and the dialogue scenes of well-dressed people speaking to each other in rooms and the rigorousness and precision of it all that made me think of that.
YT: Good Night and Good Luck was one of the films we saw.
JT: Oh yes. I love that film. That is in beautiful black and white. I had a DVD with extra material, where you see people interviewed, you see the location, that’s in color and it’s not at all as good. I didn’t decide 100% to end up in black and white (for The Last Sentence) but I thought from the beginning, “I hope I would end up in black and white.” And for the first time in my working life, the producer did not oppose it. So that made me a little bit worried. (laughs) Now it’s all up to me, it’s a big decision. Anyway, before, there were a couple of films I wanted black and white but it was impossible because of money and because of television. They demand color. Or did.
MGS: What do you think has changed that now black and white is more acceptable?
JT: I think the first thing, maybe, it has become a trend. It’s been a trend in commercials, advertising, on T.V. It’s supposed to be very artistic. So people see that and sometimes think it’s a plus. That is one thing. Of course, there was the Austrian director (Michael Haneke) who made this film The White Ribbon. It’s so beautiful. That was filmed in color too. And he didn’t know for sure that it would end up in black and white. But he managed to get it through all the way. As the Coen brothers did for The Man Who Wasn’t There. That was released as a DVD in both versions. Have you seen it?
MGS: I’ve not seen the color version but I’ve heard the color is very desaturated.
JT: Yeah, I prefer the black and white. But this doesn’t mean I always prefer black and white, of course. But for this (The Last Sentence), I’m sure it’s the right choice because, for me anyway, this period in life is black and white: my parents, the images, all the photographs of me as a child, all the documentaries from the war, all those things. At that time every film was in black and white.
MGS: All of the recent films you just named are period films too, so I think we all think of the past in black and white.
JT: That’s right.
MGS: What about the use of the documentary inserts? Why did you decide to include them?
JT: Well, that I knew from the beginning I would use. I was thinking a lot of how to use it because it’s so overdone. You’ve seen those scenes from the war. You see it almost every day on T.V. Many of them are so well known. I tried to find some that I didn’t think had been shown too much. I decided to not make it as technically perfect as possible. So I filmed with a film camera – we projected the films and I used the camera to shoot since I could move inside the image and I also had zooms, which I didn’t have in those days.
MGS: There’s one shot in particular of Hitler petting a dog that’s very brief . . .
JT: Yeah, yeah, I panned in that.
MGS: Did you include that because of Segerstedt’s relationships to his own dogs?
JT: Of course.
MGS: I thought it was interesting that the most poignant relationship in the whole film was between him and his dogs.
JT: Yeah. I’m sure it was like that in his life too. It has been witnessed.
MGS: I have one final question for you. There are two ideas in this movie that I think are related that are very powerful: one is the importance of having a free press, the other is in the line of dialogue about how silence is acquiescence. Do you think these ideas are particularly relevant in the world today?
JT: Definitely, yes. Also in Sweden (specifically), because there’s no censorship but there is, I think, some self-censorship. There are things that are so touchy to write about.
YT: I think, especially now with the internet, you can get so harassed, which is a big threat. If Segerstedt had been on the internet, I think he would’ve been in much bigger trouble than he was. (laughs) So there’s definitely a parallel.
MGS: Well, hopefully, there are still some people around like Segerstedt today. Thank you so much for your time. Your answers were great.
JT: Your questions were great. They weren’t the usual questions.
Music Box Films has acquired U.S. distribution rights for The Last Sentence. Hopefully, it will return to Chicago soon.