Long before the recent worldwide wave of elections of far-right presidents and dictators that shocked liberals and moderates across Europe and the U.S., Stieg Larsson had a fastidious eye on the simmering far-right. The new Sundance documentary about Larsson’s life and work, The Man Who Played with Fire, gifts the public an up-close and forthright perspective on the gradual rise in popularity of far-right ideology in Sweden, an event successfully replicated across the world. Dedicated to the subject since 1972, Larsson tracks the growth and transformation of Nazism into its present version, a version far more palatable to public taste than its previous incarnations.
Exceptionally bright, uncommonly detailed, and somewhat eccentric, the film shows Larsson at times bordering on obsession. Larsson goes so far as to join the rebranded Nazi party, the Sweden Democrats, to obtain their newsletters, hangs around in the parking lots of Viking rock band shows to uncover the right’s ideological and structural changes, and eventually writes “the” book on The Extreme Right. He watches as they change their rallying cry from direct racism to anti-immigration, and their clothing from punk garb and combat boots to business suits and ties. He records as their focus transitions from biological differences of the races, to that of cultural differences, and from Jewish men and women to Muslim men and women. He follows violent outbreaks through the ‘80s and ‘90s, including a rash of murders in 1995 and the movements and elections of far-right leaders like Jean-Marie Le Pen. In one agonizing scene, viewers are confronted by footage of a woman surrounded by men threatening her with violence, one yelling that she is a “Jewish pig.” Her companion responds, “She survived the holocaust!” only to further incite the crowd. After The Extreme Right’s publication, Larsson and all of his staff receive death threats, and two are nearly murdered for their exposing work. All along, Larsson notes the correlative relationship between Nazism and misogyny, misogyny often being the gateway drug to far right ideology.
Sound familiar? To fans of Larsson’s novels, the lack of focus on the Millennium series in The Man Who Played with Fire may be a frustration. The film only touches on the series lightly. However, director Henrik Georgsson’s decision was deliberate and sensible. Larsson’s personal story holds its own, needs no cheap embellishment, and without needing to say so explicitly, it is clear that the novels are in many ways a reflection of Larsson’s life and work. It is said, for example, that what may have seemed like overly dramatized and gut-wrenchingly brutal murders of women in the Millennium series were based off true events. Throughout the documentary, Larsson digs up the darkest dregs of society, so often ignored until it is too late. The resulting film is an utterly informative work that reminds us what real investigative journalism looks like.
Today as news reports publicize the so called “alt-right” extremists’ new fashion choices and continue discussing how we should talk about and to the “alt-right,” we can see that Larsson, the man closest to the subject, made no compromises or excuses, and never once underestimated the power of its followers. As displayed in the Millennium series, Larsson believed that those who carried on with such ideology do not get a pass, and that we should not be baffled as to why they are drawn to such an ideology. In his words, they become a part of it, “because they like it.” While both the Millennium series and The Man Who Played with Fire are brutal and at times difficult to stomach, the issues they deal with are realities that must be attended to. Perhaps the lesson is that when it is most difficult to look, it is the most important to open one’s eyes and see. It is fortunate that Larsson, for one, was there to do so. In a Q&A at the end of the Sundance viewing Tuesday, Georgsson was asked what he wants people to get out of the film. His response: “get inspired and fight for open democratic society.” This viewer came out readier than ever to put up a fight.