×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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

Director:
Henrik Georgsson
With:
Anna-Lena Lodenius, Daniel Poohl, Erland Larsson, Eva Gabrielsson, Ewa Tures, Gellert Tamas, Jennie K Larsson, Jesper Weithz, Katarina Larsson, Peter Karlsson (Swedish, English dialogue.)

1 hour 39 minutes

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.

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

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary — competing), Jan. 27, 2019. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Sweden) A BRF presentation of a BRF and B-Reel Films production in association with TV4, More, SF Studios, Film i Vast, Nordsvensk, GAB. (International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Producers: Mattias Nohrborg, Fredrik Heinig.

Crew: Director: Henrik Georgsson. Camera (color, HD): Anders Bohman, Sven Lindahl. Editors: Kalle Lindberg, Patrick Austen, Thomas Lagerman. Music: Andreas Mattson.

With: Anna-Lena Lodenius, Daniel Poohl, Erland Larsson, Eva Gabrielsson, Ewa Tures, Gellert Tamas, Jennie K Larsson, Jesper Weithz, Katarina Larsson, Peter Karlsson (Swedish, English dialogue.)

More Film

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Agents Accuse Writers Guild of Threatening to Throw 'Industry Into Chaos'

    UPDATE – The dealmakers appear to be getting nowhere. Negotiators for Hollywood agents and the Writers Guild of America have achieved little progress at their seventh session on Tuesday, with a chaotic scenario looming on April 7. “When Guild leadership is ready to move on from their declared threatening phase, we stand ready to work [...]

  • Zoe Lister-Jones The Craft

    'The Craft' Remake Finds Director in Zoe-Lister Jones

    “Life in Pieces” star Zoe Lister-Jones will write and direct Sony Pictures’ remake of “The Craft” for Blumhouse and Red Wagon Entertainment. Doug Wick, the producer of the original “The Craft,” will return in the same capacity along with partner Lucy Fisher through their Red Wagon banner. Jason Blum is also producing and his Blumhouse [...]

  • Carol Burnett

    Carol Burnett's Mother-Daughter Story 'Carrie and Me' in Development as a Movie

    Carol Burnett’s bestseller “Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story” is in the works as a movie at Focus Features with Burnett, Tina Fey, Eric Gurian, and Steven Rogers producing. Burnett will produce through her Mabel Cat Productions with Fey and Gurian under their production banner Little Stranger along with Rogers (“I, Tonya”). The sibling [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild Plans for Agency Pact Expiration: 'There Will Be Difficult Moments'

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America have sent members contingency plans for the possible expiration of its agency franchise agreement on April 7 — and admitted that it may be a rocky road. Members received the letter Tuesday from the guild’s negotiating committee as the WGA and agents were about the hold their seventh [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Entertainment One, Universal to Partner on Home Entertainment

    Entertainment One and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment have signed a multi-year, multi-territory distribution agreement. UPHE will serve as the home entertainment distributor of eOne’s offerings across both physical and digital formats. The pact covers film, television, and select family content and includes all sales, marketing, and distribution, spanning the U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, Spain, Australia, [...]

  • Will Smith Jada Pinkett Smith

    AFI, Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation Launch Second Young Women in Film Intensive

    The AFI Conservatory and the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation have partnered to launch the second annual Young Women in Film Intensive. The AFI Campus in Los Angeles will host 45 high school girls for an eight-week filmmaking workshop, where students will receive mentorship from current fellows and working professional alumni of the AFI [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content