Traditionally when one thinks of neighborhood violence inflicted by Nazis, it is in chilling black and white footage of a brick going through a window or assassinations in 1930s Germany. But as Stieg Larsson spent his life warning against, our past increasingly looks like our future. It’s a grim reality underscored to nightmarish effect in Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire, a new Swedish documentary which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. Ostensibly a film about the enigmatic life of an ill-fated author—one who died before the success of “the Millennium Trilogy,” which most Americans know as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books—the movie is much more fixated on Larsson’s own lifelong obsessions: such as the rise of far-right extremism and its shifting persistence.
The testament to Larsson’s fear is the world we’re living in today, one that began forming in the margins long before Larsson’s untimely death in 2004. For instance, the film’s most disturbing events involve fellow writers for Larsson’s Swedish magazine, Expo, having a car bomb planted beneath the driver’s seat of their vehicle in the 1990s. Decades later, the terrorized couple will still only speak for the documentary in silhouette while recalling how one saw their 10-year-old son running from a burning car while covered in his father’s blood. It seems Lisbeth Salander, Larsson’s beloved literary icon, wasn’t the only one who kicked the hornet’s nest.
As a documentary that alternates between English and Swedish, The Man Who Played with Fire is a bleakly intriguing historical record on the rise of far-right extremism before it went mainstream in late 20th century Europe. Larsson’s life story acts mostly as a magnifying glass for documentarian Henrik Georgsson to study Sweden’s own peculiar strands of white nationalism, which in the process builds the late author up as something akin to Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: a largely ignored voice screaming into the camera that an existential doom walks among us. Blending actual photographs of Larsson during the ‘80s and ‘90s with reenactments of a lookalike spending late nights staring at government records and eating fast food between drags of a cigarette, the doc has more to do with the kind of fascists that terrified Larsson and enraged his dark avenger than informing where Lisbeth herself sprang from in his mind. Given that Larsson himself did not live to see the publication of his novels and their global popularity, the movie raises the question if Larsson’s relationship with is famous creations will ever be fully known.
Conversely, The Man Who Played With Fire is at its most interesting when Larsson teams with journalists 20 years younger to create Expo, a magazine dedicated to uncovering the ugliness of a far-right culture that blossomed earlier in Northern Europe thanks to things like “Viking Rock” (a term created by morally flexible record producers to explain the anti-immigrant and pro-Adolf Hitler lyrics), and then tracing the moneyed connection between that base and the rise of Swedish Democrats, a party founded by white nationalists in 1988. As of 2019, and 15 years after Larsson’s death, they are the third largest political party in the country of Lisbeth, holding 62 seats in Parliament.
The film doe such a fabulous job of tracking the queasy sensation of the wheels coming off of Western democracy’s vehicle that it can sometimes distract from the fact that Stieg Larsson rarely digs into the actual life of its subject in any meaningful way. While some reenactment footage proves useful, eagerly tracking the nocturnal restlessness of Larsson, the reliance on an actor’s interpretation being juxtaposed with actual interviews Larsson gave near the end of his life is mostly distracting, as are the only hinted glimpses into his home life, beginning with an idyllic childhood in the countryside that’s shattered when his grandfather dies of a heart attack.
The documentary was made with apparent support from Larsson’s life-partner Eva Gabrielsson, who famously has contested the closeness of Larsson with his father and brother. The latter pair retained the rights of the characters Lisbeth Salander, Mikael Blomkvist, and all other “Millennium Trilogy” players when the will discovered by Gabrielsson was thrown out, leaving her with nothing and Larsson’s literary legacy in the hands of men she suggests were estranged from the writer.
Yet none of this is hinted at by the documentary, nor are Larsson’s inspirations for his most enduring literary work beyond the fact all of the antagonists in the “Millennium Trilogy” are misogynistic men of privilege or their enablers. Well that, plus Lisbeth and Mikael have a penchant for late nights in archives with cigarettes and junk food in hand.
The film is ultimately about what drove Larsson, as opposed to where that motivation actually carried the man, including to an early grave. Nevertheless, the doc has merit in helping underscore the nightmare Larsson saw coming almost 50 years ago: the return of fascism to Europe and the West. While it is intrinsically linked to Sweden’s own mutation of this disease, it is not hard to draw parallels between Swedish racists muttering all immigrants are criminals and American ones throwing out the word “rapists” into the mix. Nor is it lost that Swedish Democrats have flourished as a nationalist party after trading in shaved heads for three-piece suits, just as America’s alt-right has found wild success inside of a red baseball cap.
As a document of a crime author foreseeing the rise of political criminality going mainstream, The Man Who Played With Fire is hot to the touch, even if it’s cool on too keenly exploring the inner-life of that fellow holding the matches.