In the course of researching my CounterPunch article on TV adaptations of Swedish Marxist detective novels, I became familiar with the looming presence of Nazi sympathizers in Sweden like the monstrous Vangers in Stieg Larssen’s Dragon Tattoo novels.
Just this week I viewed press screenings for two new films that focus in on another aspect of Swedish political history, the country’s longstanding neutrality that goes back to the early 19th century and that became widely known and respected during the Vietnam antiwar movement, when Prime Minister Olof Palme marched alongside the North Vietnamese Ambassador to the Soviet Union Nguyen Tho Chan.
“Diplomacy”, that opened on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 at the Film Forum in New York, is set during the final days of WWII when Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling tries to persuade Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz not to blow up Parisian landmark edifices. “The Last Sentence”, available as a DVD or On Demand from Music Box Films, is a biopic set during the later years of Torgny Segerstedt, a newspaper editor who was famous for excoriating Adolph Hitler until the Swedish prime minister, deciding that the country’s neutrality was being undermined, clamped down on Segerstedt, confirming the precept once again that truth is the first casualty of war.
Raoul Nordling, Dietrich von Choltitz and Torgny Segerstedt were all historical figures and the two films strive for accuracy, “The Last Sentence” much more so as we shall see. Taken together, they lead to some important questions about what it means to be neutral on a moving train, a question that Howard Zinn posed in his memoir “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”. For Zinn, the moving train was the key moments in American history when the left was challenged to fight for trade union rights, racial justice and peace. For the Swedish men profiled in the two films, it was the fight to stop Nazism—a task made more complicated by their nation’s neutrality.
“Diplomacy” is basically a screen adaptation of a play of the same name by Cyril Gély made by Volker Schlödorff, a 75-year-old German director who was a member of the New German Cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s alongside Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Like all films in this vein, it retains the loquaciousness of the play at the expense of cinematic action but it more than compensates for this by offering the audience some of the more brilliant dialog heard on the silver screen for a very long time. With the sad decline of serious stage plays in New York and just about everywhere else in the USA, the film is a reminder of what serious playwriting is all about.
As Raoul Nordling and Dietrich von Choltitz respectively, André Dussollier and Niels Arestrup reprise the roles they played in Gély’s play. The two men are veterans of hundreds of films and theatrical presentations and it is a pleasure to see masters of their craft putting on a bravura performance.
Nearly the entire film takes place in General Dietrich von Choltitz’s expansive and ornate room in the Hotel Meurice as he gets an update from soldiers deployed all across Paris ready to blow up museums, bridges, government buildings, the Eiffel Tower, and all but one of the bridges across the Seine in order to both stave off the Allied advance as well as punish the French in a gesture that amounts to slashing the Mona Lisa canvas. It is not just culture that will go up in flames; the planned detonations of the Seine bridges will cause floods that could lead to the death by drowning of a good portion of the city’s population. It is up to Raoul Nordling to convince the General that he must save Paris and its people”.
“Diplomacy” unfolds as a kind of philosophical dialogue in which the two men debate questions of freedom, morality, duty, justice and politics. Although von Choltitz admits that the war is lost and that destroying Paris would not serve any meaningful military goals, he is determined to carry out orders as all good soldiers do. This is not as much a Nazi officer speaking but instead a typical Prussian Junkers, men who have been trained for generations to do their duty, even if amounts to slaughtering Jews as von Choltitz did on the Eastern front.
After Nordling wears him down making points that are irrefutable, the General uses his trump card. Hitler has issued an edict declaring that if a Nazi officer disobeys an order, his family will be killed. Von Choltitz has to choose between Paris and all its glories and the survival of his wife and children. What would you do, he asks Nordling. The diplomat is forced to admit that he was not sure.
Historically, there was no 11th hour confrontation between von Choltitz and Nordling. The two men, however, had opened up a line of communication owing to Sweden’s neutrality that had led to prisoner exchanges.
Von Choltitz only earned the plush job of governing Vichy Paris because he was not implicated in the General’s Plot that was dramatized in the pretty good Tom Cruise vehicle “Valkyrie”. In the press notes and in the film, Volker Schlödorff takes considerable pains to portray him as someone who never had any problems with the Third Reich. He is the quintessential military man who was good at carrying out orders and redeems himself finally by disobeying the Fuhrer’s order.
I don’t think any spoiler alert is necessary in revealing that the General made the right decision since we know that Paris did survive the Nazi occupation. What leaves the inquiring mind somewhat unsatisfied, however, was his motivation. Did he really want to be known as the man who saved Paris? The film fails to deliver a final speech by von Choltitz in which he reveals why he made the phone call to his subordinates to call off a Parisian Armageddon. We are left guessing, which might have been part of playwright Gély’s intention.
Although I have not seen it, I am persuaded that “Diplomacy” is no match for René Clément’s 1966 “Is Paris Burning” that is based on the same historical events, especially since it was co-written by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. I say that not having seen the film but from what I have learned in the Wikipedia write-up, where we learn that von Choltitz’s decision was influenced by facts on the ground. The Resistance had taken control of most of Paris and the General realized that Nazi resistance was futile. Whatever von Choltitz told reporters and historians, I cannot escape the feeling that he was like Colonel Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds”, someone who switched sides at the last minute to save his ass. Despite killing 36,000 Jews at Sevastopol, von Choltitz only spent two years in prison, half as much as my cousin Joel spent in prison for growing marijuana for his personal use on his upstate New York estate.
“The Last Sentence” is a decidedly uncommercial film. Filmed in black-and-white, ostensibly to convey period authenticity, it is a love affair involving men and women of advanced years. Ask yourself when the last time Hollywood featured a couple with a man in his seventies and a woman in her late sixties? None spring to my mind, at least.
The love affair in question was between Torgny Segerstedt and his mistress Maja Forssman, who owned the newspaper he wrote for. As a Jewish woman, she must have loved him as much for the bruising editorials he wrote against Hitler as the intimacy they shared. Their relationship was quite modern. She was married to the paper’s publisher who was Segerstedt’s long-time friend and who gave their affair his benediction. The same tolerance was not extended by Segerstedt’s wife Puste who slept in a separate bedroom in their home upon the insistence of Torgny Segerstedt who could not persuade her to divorce him. Until her death toward the end of the film, she pleads for him to treat her once again as his wife. While he does not hold her in quite the same contempt as Hitler, it is clear that he has no use for her. As part of the tangled sexual politics of the film, Puste both resents Maja and finds good words to say about the Nazis.
Until Nazi Germany begins to constitute a real menace to Sweden, the big bourgeoisie is content to allow Torgny Segerstedt to write his editorials. As the war begins to become a palpable reality, the pressure mounts on him to choose a less violent rhetoric—a plea that sounds eerily like the one heard from U. of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise on the Steven Salaita firing.
In one of the more memorable scenes, Segerstedt stands up to the Foreign Minister who he meets in the men’s room in a government building. When warned implicitly that he could go to jail unless he changed his tune, Segerstedt slaps him across the face with a rolled-up newspaper, a perfect gesture for a man in his line of work.
“The Last Sentence” is directed by the 83-year-old Jan Troell, best known for “The Emigrants”, a 1971 film about Swedish farmers in the Midwest. The screenwriter is Klaus Rifbjerg, a Dane the same age as Troell who has written over a hundred (!) novels and many screenplays, books of poetry, and nonfiction works. Wikipedia states that his works are concerned with the “breakdown of the normality of the bourgeoisie”, a preoccupation that must have led him to work on this film, which is as much about the alienation between men and women as it is about the ultimate breakdown of normality—the Third Reich.
Both films are set within the context of Sweden’s peculiar relationship to the adversaries during WWII. Spain and Portugal were neutral even though they were obviously for a Nazi victory. Ireland leaned in both directions, a function no doubt reflecting the experience of British rule, which was no bargain compared to Nazism. Switzerland was neutral mostly out of a desire to make a fast buck trading with both the allies and the axis powers, just as you would expect.
Sweden’s role was more complex. While the Swedish ruling class would have obviously preferred parliamentary rule in Germany, they had no appetite for confronting Hitler especially when commercial advantage was in the offing.
To its credit, Sweden became a haven for Jews during the war. In 1943 all of Denmark’s Jews were allowed in, saving them from certain death in concentration camps. There was also the heroism of Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg who saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from certain extermination. Since diplomats like Wallenberg and Nordling were perceived as less threatening by the Nazis, they had more room to maneuver.
Despite the efforts of Nordling and Wallenberg, the Swedes have come to terms recently with the fact that the nation’s neutrality might have had more in common with Spain and Portugal’s than commonly recognized—largely based on the findings of “The Blood Track”, a 2012 book written by Espen Eidum. “The Last Sentence” gave the impression that the Swedish government put pressure on Segerstedt out of cowardice but reading Eidum would lead one to conclude that the real motivation was Vanger-like admiration for Adolph Hitler.
Overland, the Australian magazine to which I contributed an article about the American two-party system some time ago, took a look at Eidum’s book in an article titled “Sweden Stalks Julian Assange” that debunked the notion of Sweden as a social democratic free-speech paradise. The article, written by Alex Mitchell, takes the Zinn-like position that “The concept of neutrality towards Nazism is an immoral disgrace. No nation and no people can be neutral towards Nazism, then or now.” With stinging language reminiscent of both Stieg Larsson and Torgny Segerstedt, Mitchell notes:
The Swedish Social Democrats (equivalent of the Australian Labor Party) led the national government that upheld the neutral line on Hitler’s Third Reich for the duration of the war.
The reality was that Sweden’s ‘neutrality’ meant working cooperatively with Berlin. Under Social Democrat Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson, German troops and armaments were permitted to pass through Sweden to fight the Russian army (which was on our side) in Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa.
Sweden continued to supply steel and machinery parts to Germany throughout the war and 10 million tonnes of iron ore was shipped from Sweden to the Nazi weapons industry.
Left-wing Swedish newspapers were closed on the insistence of the Nazis and Swedish volunteers joined the Waffen SS to fight on the Russian front.
That’s certainly something to keep in mind when well-meaning politicians, including Bernie Sanders whose candidacy for President I certainly would support warts and all, tell us that their idea of socialism is what exists in Sweden.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.