Last autumn, the great Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell visited the Bay Area for a screening of his latest narrative feature, The Last Sentence, at the Mill Valley Film Festival. For anyone unfamiliar with his work, the Telluride Film Festival fêted the writer/director/editor/cinematographer a few years ago by showcasing his celebrated The Emigrants and its follow-up, The New Land. Most importantly, perhaps, they screened his first film, Here’s Your Life, arguably (along with Cleo from 5 to 7, Ivan’s Childhood, Citizen Kane, La ciénaga and a handful of others) one of the greatest debut features of all time.
Publicist extraordinaire Karen Larsen approached Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow with the notion of speaking with Troell about his remarkable career. The only trouble was that Music Box Films would be releasing the film many months later and it was in everyone’s interest to wait until the initial theatrical release for this conversation to be published. That time is now.
Jonathan Marlow: You initially started as a cinematographer….
Jan Troell: An amateur cinematographer.
Marlow: How important is it to you in the process of filmmaking where you are both the cinematographer and the director?
Troell: I would say it is essential to me. I have been forced to work sitting beside the camera in the two American productions I was involved in. I didn’t feel very much at home. I also tried when we were shooting The Emigrants. After the first few weeks of shooting, I looked at the results and I found that I had missed a few things that I should have seen. When we started shooting again, I tried to sit beside the camera. I could do that for half-a-day and then I have to go behind the camera. That is where I feel at home.
Marlow: Where you feel most comfortable.
Troell: Yes. I want to be able to improvise the movements of the camera. If I feel I want to pan to something else without informing anyone in advance, I want to be able to do that. Maybe I have a ‘Peeping Tom’ trait. I want to hide and watch. Today, it is much less of a problem because, shooting with digital techniques, you can see the results immediately afterwards. You can check and see if you missed something.
Marlow: Was The Last Sentence the first feature-length narrative that you shot digitally?
Troell: Yes. But I have shot documentaries on video.
Marlow: In the U.S., your narrative features are much better known than your short films or your documentaries. It is very unfortunate because these other films are essential in fully understanding your work. Much of your feature-length narrative works are adaptations of existing material. I can only think of one exception.
Troell: There are some exceptions.
Marlow: There are. But it seems from your very first film (and forgive me for repeating myself when we spoke at Telluride years ago) that Here’s Your Life is one of the most self-assured and confident debut films. From your very first film, it is clear that you had a deep understanding of what you were doing as a filmmaker. You have carried that through in all of your work.
Troell: I feel as, I suppose, most filmmaker do. With every new film, I feel like a beginner in many ways. One thing that I have found difficult to live up to, the more I have known technically, the more experience I have, the more you have to be aware of not falling into a routine and using the same themes, the same choices. You know that, ‘This works. It has worked before. It will work one more time.’ That is a sort of struggle you have to endure. You mention Here’s Your Life. In a way, it is a bit sad because… it is not only you but I have heard and read so many times that this is the most important film that people remember. I think, of course, that it can make a person happy in one way and sad in another way if you go on for fifty years after that!
Marlow: Yes, but that does not diminish the importance of The Emigrants or The New Land. I think what you are talking about is that, on certain level, it would be safe as a filmmaker to continue to do the same thing over and over but, like any sensible artist, you want to avoid mining a similar territory repeatedly. As you say, you have intentionally set-up new challenges. You do not necessarily want to revisit the same area. Although, admittedly, you did make a narrative film [Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd] and a documentary [En frusen dröm] on the same subject….
Troell: That is true. But the choice of subject means so much. When we did Here’s Your Life, I was actually a happy amateur. Not all the time ‘happy’ because I remember, also, after the first shootings. I wanted to leave everything and run away! I did not feel I was suited for it.
Troell: It is true. But I had a good producer and he persuaded me to try again. We were shooting the first real dialogue scene of Here’s Your Life between Olaf, the main character, and his girlfriend. I had the whole team standing, waiting around me, and I just felt that it did not work. It did not come alive. We had to break and go home because it wasn’t working. During the night, I really felt that I must run away from this. Then, Bengt Forslund, the producer, said, ‘But let’s go back the next night,’ because we were filming in the summer up in northern Sweden. There was nearly twenty-four hours of light to film.
Marlow: This is in Lapland?
Troell: Not quite. Not really Lapland but the neighbor Dansk. Just the two actors, my camera assistant and Bengt went with me. We shot with no sound, just improvised. “Do it your way.” That’s what we did.
Marlow: What was the difference?
Troell: It changed. When I felt secure, when I could work my way and when I was not fulfilling everyone else’s expectations… because, very naturally, the team looked at me as an amateur. Which I was! I felt that I have to live up to their standards. But, by then, I did not think that way.
Marlow: What was the climate for filmmaking in Sweden at the time?
Troell: It was a very, very good climate at the time. You are familiar with the director Bo Widerberg?
Marlow: Yes. You shot one of his films prior to…
Troell: Yes. I was his cameraman. We were both amateurs, really. It was our first feature. He opened in a way a new path for filmmaking. He was such an admirer of the new French New Wave and the British Realism. Originally, he was an author. He wrote several articles in the Swedish newspaper where he criticized the way films were made in Sweden at the time. The climate was also very good because of Svensk Filmindustri. Bengt Forslund, my producer, was one of their producers. They were looking for young filmmakers and for new subjects and so on. It is very different now.
Marlow: With your second feature, it won major awards at festivals and it definitely felt as if, this many years removed, that this is a great turning point.
Troell: You mean Ole dole doff or Eenie‑Meany‑Miney‑Moe or Who Saw Him Die. There are different titles. Who Saw Him Die is not a good title. He didn’t die! But these people misunderstood the ending.
Marlow: Yes, exactly.
Troell: It was much worse than dying. He had to go back to work! [Laughter.]
Marlow: When The Emigrants was celebrated by the Academy [nominated for multiple Academy Awards], this was at a time when international films were regularly recognized in the U.S. [outside of the Best Foreign Language Film category]. You were working with a cast that, at that time, was somewhat recognizable to U.S. audiences. With The Last Sentence and other recent work, you seem to have a real inclination for using theater actors in cinematic settings. It seems fairly common and consistent across a lot of Swedish filmmaking to have an intersection between the theater and cinema. I do not see that as often in other countries, perhaps because the theater in Stockholm and elsewhere in Sweden is such a large part of the culture that it is not considered something different. It is part of a larger form.
Troell: I had not thought much about it but I guess, with a small country and a relatively small language, there are a limited number of professional actors you can afford to hire. I very often mix professional actors with amateurs. If you have someone who cannot do their way in their own character, it can be a very ugly situation.
Marlow: I can see the challenges of a director who takes those performances of the professionally trained actor and combines them with performances of an inexperienced actor [or a non-actor] and then is forced to make them seem like they exist in the same world. I imagine that someone who has done a particular trade for their entire life, if you asked them to perform that act on the screen, there is a certain authenticity to their performance and that is difficult to teach an actor in a short period of time.
Troell: It has happened on a few occasions that I have chosen theatrical actors who have found it difficult to adapt to the way of acting for the camera. But not so many times… I have always felt insecure with actors because I do not have any experience of my own with acting. There has been (you could call it) a myth of instructing actors. The director has to be like Ingmar Bergman, like he was supposed to be, as a director. The actors that he worked with have said, ‘It is not at all that he does everything. He was very open with the actors. He was not—what is the word for it?—a demonic director. Usually.
Marlow: Usually. To what extent is casting integral to the beginning of process?
Troell: It is absolutely crucial. I was happy to find that I am not the only one depending so much on the choice of actors and doing so little direct work with the actors. I read a book with interviews with well‑known directors on all their work. It’s an American book. I don’t remember the title. When the question was asked about how they worked with the actors, almost everyone said that one thing is most important and that is the choice of the actor. If you choose the right actor, they usually said, ‘I give them a lot of freedom.’ Maybe not total, but… I once asked Max Von Sydow how it was to work with John Huston. They did one film together, The Kremlin Letter. He and Bibi Andersson were acting in it. He said ‘John Huston sometimes just gave us the script and said, ‘This is the scene. You take the script. You go to a separate room, work together and figure out something. When you think you have something, just call me.’ ‘ He went there and looked and maybe added some suggestions. But that was a matter of, ‘This would really suit me.’ I used it deliberately for one film, called Il capitano.
Marlow: I know of it.
Troell: Based on a true story. I was working with two Finnish actors, a young man and a young woman. We had found them by advertising. When I was looking for the leading characters for this film, I wanted not trained ‘film school’ or ‘theater school’ actors but rather people who had their own difficult experiences in life. Finding these two, very problematic parts arose. They were speaking Finnish in most of the film. Of course, they were portraying two Finnish young people. I didn’t (and don’t) speak Finnish at all. A few words, that is all. They knew a little bit of Swedish when we started out. We communicated in English most of the time. I didn’t understand [when they were doing their scenes] what they were saying. Of course, we had a script. But I gave them a great deal of freedom to change the dialogue so that it was the way their generation was talking to each other (which the writer and I did not know very well). They went away with the script and worked and then came back. I trusted them completely because I could hear them and feel that what they were doing was true. That is the way that we work, most of the time. I’ve never had a better cooperation. The leading lady of Everlasting Moment, she was one of them. In The Last Sentence, she’s playing the maid. Also, the man who is playing this sea captain of Brugerman, he was the other one.
Marlow: You mentioned also, with The Last Sentence, that you were able to shoot again. You were able to collaborate with a producer who understood that it was important for you to shoot this film in black-and-white. Had you wanted Everlasting Moments, to be presented in black-and-white as well? I have read elsewhere about your feelings of how color can distract from the narrative. Particularly in the case where, in The Last Sentence, the action takes place in the 1930s where you are using materials that were shot at that time. For the integration of that footage, it feels natural for the film to exist in black-and-white. People seem to think, ‘You can’t shoot in black-and-white anymore…’ but the reality is that it is another tool for the filmmaker…
Troell: That is true.
Marlow: …to evoke some aspect of the story, which, in The Last Sentence, is exceptionally effective. It works quite beautifully.
Troell: I have had only good reactions, actually. Of course, also, maybe it has helped that [Michael] Haneke’s film, The White Ribbon, was black-and-white. But he also shot in color.
Marlow: Just in case?
Troell: For television. He didn’t expect that television would accept it [in black-and-white].
Marlow: Is that the case for The Last Sentence as well?
Troell: We shot in color and we have it as a safety to offer if a distributor says, ‘No, we don’t want to buy this film.’ Maybe they want it in color. Then we have it color. It hasn’t happened, so far.
Marlow: It hasn’t happened. That’s good! That says a lot about how evocative black-and-white cinematography can be, even today. I’ve seen a number of films that were shot in color and it hurt it, where it doesn’t have the palette of actual black-and-white. It’s rather obvious that they’ve just desaturated the image. With The Last Sentence, it is obvious that you shot the film with the intention of presenting it in black-and-white. You then tested, evidently, to make certain that black-and-white would give you the contrast that you were looking for?
Troell: The first few weeks of shooting, I had a monitor and I was checking the takes, afterwards. I didn’t want to make it black-and-white all time. That’s the way I wanted to see it.
Marlow: On the set, you were always looking at it in black-and-white?
Troell: The first few weeks, yes, but then we moved to another location and I needed to see it in color, too. I must admit, I was not 100 percent certain to choose black-and-white until very late in the process. There were temptations, also, with the color. In some scenes, the color meant something. But those where exceptions.
Marlow: In adapting this story, you start in a relatively unconventional place. The audience is introduced immediately to the writing of his infamous letter, denouncing Hitler. It’s already clear from the dinner party that there’s a relationship between the protagonist and his friend’s wife. Normally, you would start the story earlier and build up his character and help the audience understand what he was doing. It is a very bold choice to start immediately where it begins… and the correct choice. You have the newsreel footage of Adolf Hitler, the dance sequence, then an immediate transition to his writing of the letter. He his directly perceived as a complex character, given the relationship that Sweden had as a neutral country ahead of what ultimately happened in 1939. He’s there in the very beginning, when Hitler becomes chancellor in 1933, recognizing what this was going to mean to Europe and for the whole world.
Troell: It is, of course, a totally different matter to base a script on a biography than to adapt it from a novel, for instance, or a short story. As a biography contains a whole life, you have to try to find the story that is most interesting to you. We decided, from the beginning, that we would stay with the Second World War and what led to the war. The starting point is his fight against Hitler. Of course, there are two main streams in the film. There is the political part of the story and then his private life. His private life and his character were the most fascinating to me. From the beginning, I decided that is where we would focus. Because, when we were doing research, we had access to such fantastic material, such as interviews made by his secretary. She began working on a biography, herself. She interviewed about 300 people and kept notes. As I said, all this material is available at the university… He was born in the neighboring landscape, Varmland, where Selma Logerlof came from. In a way, I found it a very fascinating aspect. How, from the beginning, he was very religious. He had wanted to become a priest. He studied theology.
Marlow: Comparative religions.
Troell: Yes. And he became an atheist but he was still a sort of religious man, as I said. But you can also understand that it had been a very hard inner struggle for him with this keeping up of a mistress. Not a mistress, really. They were lovers. And still while staying with his wife and showing it openly. They went walking in the streets arm-in-arm. All of Gothenburg knew about this. I find that very intriguing. What kind of man is he? Of course, we can never find the final answer to that but we can give hints.
Marlow: The film attempts to give the audience an insight into a not-entirely-sympathetic protagonist. He reflects the complexities of the period. His distinct lack of complicity with what was happening in Germany by being silent, by not speaking out, by not opposing it, which was the intention of the neutrality of Sweden at the time. You seem to have a certain attraction to stories that are historical.
Troell: Yes, I do.
Marlow: Flight of the Eagle, in particular. In Flight of the Eagle, you’re dealing with another kind of complicated…
Troell: That was worse. I guess that is where you can find yourself in that kind of story. You can identify with certain traits in the character.
Marlow: You have a direct connection to the biographer from which The Last Sentence is adapted.
Troell: Yes. Kenne Fant. He is living now in Southern France. He was the head of Swedish film industry when I started out. He was the one who gave me the chance to do my first films, together with Bengt Forslund.
Marlow: Did he give you a copy of this biography?
Troell: Yes. He called me one day from France. He said that there were certain plans to do an adaptation for film and he asked if I would be interested. I read it and I was interested from the beginning, of course. But I must admit that there was a point when I really hesitated to agree. Of course, I wasn’t immediately certain where we were going to concentrate. It wasn’t until my wife told me, ‘There are such interesting stories in it in regarding the women.’ She knew that because her father idolized Segerstedt during the war. She was brought up listening to what he wrote. That was before I had begun to study all this material I mentioned. When I found out that my friend Klaus Rifbjerg, the Danish author, was interested, I had always wanted a co‑writer of script. He had his own memories from the German occupation. We are the same age, born in the same year. His parents were reading Segerstedt in the newspaper and were familiar with his articles during the war (secretly, because they were not allowed in Denmark). He had his own memories, like I had. Not memories of Segerstedt but his remembering of the feeling of the war in Sweden. Those memories remain with us.