Film Reviews

Review: ‘Stieg Larsson: The Man who Played with Fire’

Hot Docs 2019


Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire
(Sweden, 99 minutes)
Dir. Henrik Georgsson
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)

As Hot Docs 2019 winds down, it should be noted that the festival has screened a powerful selection of documentaries exposing the victimization of the vulnerable and oppressed in a world where democratic values are under siege. From the United States to Greece to Italy and Canada, right wing politicians and demagogues hell-bent on injuring the helpless are convincing voters to elect them into office—and the festival has shown a sharp eye in showing a strong selection of films about the terrifying situation.

Henrik Georgsson’s riveting and very moving doc has an unusual angle on this vital subject. The protagonist of The Man Who Played with Fire is Swedish journalist, activist, and novelist Stieg Larsson, who created Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As the doc reveals, he wrote three of his hugely successful Millennium novels in one burst of creativity, a project his friends thought was insane. Much to their surprise, a publisher jumped at the rights to publish the novels although Larsson didn’t live to see their success. An obsessive worker who barely slept, never exercised, and lived on a diet of Big Macs, cigarettes and coffee, he died of a heart attack in 2004 at age 50.

“Millennium” refers to the activist, anti-fascist, financially troubled magazine the protagonist of the novels edits. Larsson based it on the real-life magazine, Expo, which he was struggling to keep afloat before he dove into Lisbeth Salander’s world. Incidentally, Larsson loathed omnipotent crime story heroes, but he excused the supernaturally talented, ultra-violent Lisbeth because he considered her a psychopath.

Long before Expo, Larsson was a graphic artist at a news agency and a writer who loathed neo-Nazis and arch-rightists. Without a trace of self-righteousness, or self-congratulation, he went after them with a dogged, unrestrained conviction they should be brought down.

Larsson didn’t merely write editorials and op-ed pieces. He literally pursued the anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, anti-asylum seeker fascists. Larsson went to their events and took surreptitious pictures of them. He researched their identities and graphed relationships between various individuals and groups. A woman he worked with was amazed that he knew everything about even minor characters, almost down to their shoe sizes.

Larsson went into overdrive after the 1986 assassination of Prime Minister Olaf Palme, which horrified Swedes who thought that kind of thing could only happen in America. The murder unleashed a snake pit of far right and openly Nazi groups, not to mention Royalists, skinheads and a nationalist political party, The Sweden Democrats, which did frighteningly well in the 2018 General Election.

Georgsson’s film benefits from copious footage of riots, street demonstrations, neo-Nazi rock throwing, and the inevitable harassing of Jews. “Jewish pigs,” they chant at people on the street, not quite capable of the more cerebral “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” In interviews, the rioters claim that refugees commit crimes on their first day in the country, spread AIDS, and are basically the root of all evil. Larsson researched and published accounts of the many crimes committed by the rightists. At least no political leader in the mainstream parties said there were good people among them.

When Larsson and his team began delving into White Power music, “Viking” bands like Ultima Thule with their overtly Nazi, violence-inspiring lyrics, the situation heated up. Viking shows and CDs had mainstreamed, and become a major source of revenue. Death threats proliferated. Phone calls and an envelope full of bullets arrived. Two of Larsson’s collaborators got into a car that blew up. People dropped out due to the threats.

Larsson plunged ahead relentlessly, pushing friends into an insanely demanding schedule to churn out a book about Sweden Democracy. Typically, he would show up at three, and be raring to go at 10pm. He was capable of being hurtful.

The doc presents quick hits on Larsson’s personality. He was a night owl who seemed edgy and loved crime stories and movies. We see and hear the real Larsson in TV interview clips and a look-alike portrays him taking clandestine photos, writing, consuming gallons coffee, and chain-smoking. Georgsson doesn’t offer much information about his relationship with his long-time partner, but never wife, Eva Gabrielsson. She contributed to the creation of his Millennium books, and for years has been in a rights dispute with Larsson’s brother and father.

As a child, Larsen lived in the country with his grandfather Severin, an obviously straight-shooting good-hearted man who despised Nazis and talked politics with his friends. He couldn’t fathom how the Holocaust could have happened

At the end of the film, we find out that Larsen wanted to buy his grandfather’s little house, suggesting that life with Severin was the happiest period of his life. We hear an inventory of his fondest memories: his first girlfriends, the first time he had sex, culminating with “All my unachievable, secret infatuations.”

Georgsson’s doc makes it clear that the man who played with fire was a romantic who went into battle against evil that he exposed in real life, and created a misfit heroine who took out the Nazis in his novels.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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