Stieg Larsson – The Man Who Played With Fire


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Stieg Larsson – The Man Who Played With Fire
"Over the course of 95 minutes, we'll come to learn that the writer was, in some ways, a canary in the coal mine of today's rise in extreme right-wing views and the way many who espouse them have latched on to populist agendas in modern politics." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The title might suggest a bookish exercise in examining multimillion-pound selling author Stieg Larsson's inspirations for his posthumously published Millennium book trilogy. But the thrillers about Lisbeth Salander turn out to be just a footnote to the much bigger picture Henrik Georgsson paints of the writer's career of pro-democracy campaigning and his fight against the rise of neo-Nazism - all of which ended with his death at just 50, from a heart attack, in 2004.

This smoothly edited film - by a team led by Kalle Lindberg who also cut the recent Bergman: A Year In A Life - Georgsson mixes Larsson's fiction and factual writing, re-enactment and interviews with family and friends, including Larsson's long-term partner Eva Gabrielsson. Over the course of 95 minutes, we'll come to learn that the writer was, in some ways, a canary in the coal mine of today's rise in extreme right-wing views and the way many who espouse them have latched on to populist agendas in modern politics.

Although he had a specific, lifelong interest in what was happening in his homeland of Sweden, Larsson took an almost exhaustive - and exhausting, according to those that knew him - interest in what extremist groups were up to. "I never knew anyone who worked as much as him," says one interviewee, while another describes his work as "more of an obsession". That picture is reinforced by the judicious use of re-enactments - silent moments used for atmosphere rather than development and featuring physical dead ringer Emil Almén, seen smoking and chugging coffee at all hours as he writes. A graphic artist for TT News Agency long before he turned his hand to fiction writing, Larsson was also a man who was good at spotting connections. Contributors describe his ability to work out and chart who was linked to who - a skill he would later use in the plotting of the Millennium books with their webs of intrigue.

Snippets of Larsson's writing illustrate, as the decades moved from the Seventies to the Eighties and beyond, how he observed those who held neo-Nazi views becoming more savvy in their employment of racist and extremist dog whistles, while simultaneously swapping their skinheads for suits and ties. Even the music of the likes of "white power" band Ultima Thule, once only the province of the fringes, became rebranded as the much more cuddly named "viking rock", leading to a surge in popularity and their use as a recruiting tool for the right.

Georgesson shows how this 'normalisation' of extreme views - which its possible to see replicated everywhere from Hungary to Britain to Trump's MAGA movement - have led politicians to break into the mainstream, while retaining their ties to the less camera-ready groups of their supporters.

The director - who is best known in the UK for his work on The Bridge - maintains a tricky balance, both telling the story of the rise of the right over the past 40 to 50 years, while also charting Larsson's life. As a child the writer lived with his grandparents, whose influence, it's suggested led to his later desire to expose extremism, becoming supporter for Expo, a magazine similar to the British Searchlight - where he was also a correspondent - which was dedicated to driving extremists out of the shadows. This, did not come without consequences, and that in itself illustrates the single-mindedness of Larsson, who refused to be diverted even in the face of death threats.

Georgesson may not have an enormous amount of footage with Larsson to draw upon - the bulk of his fame, of course, came too late for him to bask in it - but he uses what archive there is well to draw into focus the life of a sometimes difficult, driven man, chillingly, spotted years ago a threat to democracy that, for most of us, is only just starting to become apparent. It's not so much that he played with fire, but that he saw the sparks of the current extremist problem before they had started to burn.

Reviewed on: 26 Jan 2019
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Documentary about the Millennium-trilogy author Stieg Larsson and his pioneering work of fighting right wing extremists and neo-Nazis.

Director: Henrik Georgsson

Writer: Olof Berglind, Nathan Grossman

Starring: Emil Almén

Year: 2018

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Sweden


Sundance 2019

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