It was troubling to view Swedish director Jan Troell’s 2012 film (trailer) based on the experience of crusading journalist Torgny Segerstedt, so soon after the recent tragic events in Paris. Segerstedt was editor-in-chief of one of Sweden’s leading newspapers, and between 1933 when Hitler came to power and his own death in 1945, Segerstedt was a fierce opponent of Naziism, even though much of Sweden’s leadership, including the king, was determined to remain neutral and out of the war. The struggle for journalists’ right—some would say duty—to speak out despite risks to themselves and others has not ended.
Beautifully played by Jesper Christensen, Segerstedt left himself open to criticism and to the devaluing of his motivations by his long affair with a Jewish woman, wife of his publisher. Hollywood’s crusading journalists are noble and flawless (think All the President’s Men), their presumed moral authority overshadowing any rough spots in their personalities, whereas Segerstedt’s uncompromising character is pompous at times and unpleasant at others, he basks in his celebrity, and he’s downright cruel to his wife. “Easy to admire, but very hard to like,” said RogerEbert.com reviewer Glenn Kenny. Truth told, he loves his dogs best.
Producing this film in black and white may have symbolic significance or may be just the preferred Scandinavian style—the film is Swedish, after all. In another Bergman-like touch, Segerstedt sees and converses with the black-clad ghosts of his mother and other women. Slow-moving, like the clear stream (of words?) against which the opening and closing credits appear, there is only a fleeting soundtrack to support the action.
The film left me with a lot of unanswered questions. What happened with his writing? When the authorities demanded that a particular edition not be distributed because of its anti-Nazi editorial (which suggests they had imposed some censorship regime), Segerstedt printed it with a big white space where the editorial would have been. Nice. But we never learn whether he was allowed to continue writing after that (or how he was stopped) until a scene that takes place years later. How did the war affect the Swedish people? There’s little hint of that, beyond putting up blackout curtains. It seems they had electricity, they had food, petrol, champagne at New Year’s. It’s primarily the awareness of Nazi behavior that the viewer brings to the film that explains and justifies both Segerstedt’s simmering outrage and his country’s policy of appeasement. He and his mistress both have suicide plans, if it came to that, but in the absence of any tangible, on-screen threat, their preparations seem self-dramatizing and almost childish.
Segerstedt in a sense provides his own epitaph, which is also the Swedish title of the movie—“Judgment on the Dead”— based on a line from a famous Old Norse poem, which says the judgment on the dead is everlasting. History’s judgment on Segerstedt would be that he was of course right about the Nazis. And if, as the King believed, it would have been his fault if the Germans invaded the country, he would have been among the first to die. NPR’s Ella Taylor called the film “A richly detailed portrait of a great man riddled with flaws and undone by adulation.” Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 76%, audience score 44%.