Sundance Film Review: ‘Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played With Fire’

February 8, 2019 3:17AM PT

An engrossing portrait of the late ‘Millennium’ mystery series author’s day job: investigating extremist right-wing groups as a journalist.

Those expecting a documentary focusing on Stieg Larsson’s huge popular “Millennium” series — the high-grade pulp mysteries he wrote as a kind of hobby, and which weren’t published until after his death in 2004 at age 50 — are likely to be disappointed by “The Man Who Played With Fire.” The thing for which Larsson is posthumously world-famous is just barely touched on in Henrik Georgsson’s feature, though clips from the spinoff Swedish and U.S. features are scattered throughout.

Instead, this nonfiction biopic concentrates on something even more compelling: Larsson’s life pursuit of tracking extremist far-right groups as an investigative journalist, a personal obsession that made him an expert in a field that’s only grown more politically relevant since his demise. You don’t get a lot of Lisbeth Salander here. But you do get an overview of fascist/nationalist movements in Sweden and beyond over recent decades, which lends this well-crafted effort interest well beyond the strictly biographical.

Larsson was raised by his grandparents in the countryside while his parents were establishing themselves professionally in the city — apparently not an unusual arrangement in Sweden at the time. It was that grandfather, a fervent anti-Nazi, who instilled in him a passionate desire to root out and expose Swedish fascist and anti-democratic groups. Few even realized such groups existed at all after WWII. But they rebounded into public consciousness once the collapse of the Soviet Union created a ripple effect of nationalist movements, with immigrants fleeing the resulting ethnic conflicts in areas such as the Balkans. The nationalists involved themselves in terrorist acts and in infiltrating the political mainstream.

In addition to his regular employment at a major news agency for more than 20 years, Larsson co-wrote the then-definitive book on such groups, “Extremhögern” (The Extreme Right).  When it was published in 1991, co-author Anna-Lena Lodenius retreated from further journalistic investigation of the field in fear for her family’s safety. But Larsson was unbowed by death threats, going on to become editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to covering right-wing extremism. (Some key “Expo” personnel, forced to live in hiding, are interviewed here in silhouette.)

While he was constantly at risk of violent reprisal, Larsson wound up dying the classic newspaperman’s death: a heart attack at age 50, brought on by compulsive overwork, poor nutrition, chain-smoking and lack of exercise. “The Man Who Played With Fire” doesn’t touch on all the controversies that ensued with the enormous posthumous success of the “Millennium” books, not even the bitter split between his longtime life partner Eva Gabrielsson and his family members, from whom he was purportedly semi-estranged. The “Millennium” revenue stream went straight to the family, because he and Gabrielsson never married — due at least in part to his safety needs; wedlock would have meant their address was made public.

Bits from the adapted films from the “Millennium” series are interspersed here, as their reporter protagonist Mikael Blomkvist was somewhat of an alter ego for Larsson, who interpolated some of his preferred issues into their serpentine fictive narratives. But more conspicuous is director Georgsson’s decision to incorporate re-enactment scenes, mostly incidental in nature (with actor Emil Almen as Larsson) that take up about one-third the documentary’s running time. The scenes are often of Almen-as-Larsson smoking in his office at night, and include no dialogue (Jan Simonsson’s voiceover reading from Larsson’s writings are the accompaniment). The device is often a cheesy annoyance in documentaries, but it works well enough here, helping to subtly extend the “Millennium” connection by lending a faint whiff of pulp thrillerdom. (Andreas Mattson’s synthy suspense-type score helps deliver that mood as well.)

Most engrossing, however, is the plentiful footage shot (some surreptitiously by Larsson himself) of racist and fascist group activities, private as well as public. How he avoided being roughed up for repeatedly lurking around their periphery is a miracle. One interesting point made here is that threats against him and fellow Expo staff seriously ratcheted up only when the reporters began to follow the money — exposing the secretive manufacturers of so-called Viking rock records by bands like Ultima Thule, whose popularity helped fund white supremacist organizations.

One suspects Larsson would have been horrified but not entirely surprised at the great leaps such movements have made since his death 15 years ago — mainstreaming themselves into positions of national government influence in Sweden and beyond. If he’s not around to continue the fight against them, at least his life’s work remains invaluable for those continuing that fight. “The Man Who Played With Fire” may lure viewers in with its connection to popular fiction, but its true value lies in containing so much intel that, rather unfortunately, is still of pressing real-world importance.