Sundance: Doc premieres on Stieg Larsson, author of 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' trilogy and dedicated foe of right-wing extremists
Henrik Georgsson's film shows Larsson understood threat of resurgent right long before others
When Stieg Larsson died in 2004 he had yet to see his crime trilogy Millennium (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) appear in print. The posthumous publication of his work turned him into one of the world's best-selling authors, with sales exceeding 90 million copies.
But the documentary Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, establishes that crime writing was a mere sideline for Larsson. His real mission in life was to document the activities of neo-Nazis and right-wing nationalists in his native Sweden. His dedication to the work arguably killed him.
"When he was 17 or 18, he saw some neo-Nazis on the street, in the city where he lived, and he was fascinated. Scared, in a way," director Henrik Georgsson tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "He didn't like them, but he was also fascinated by the phenomenon. 'How can you be a Nazi?' This was like 1970, and so it was not really an issue in Sweden with neo-Nazis and right-wing people, at that time."
Georgsson continues, "He started to look into it and investigate it and research, trying to map out all those [right-wing] organizations. They weren't public. They didn't want anyone to know what they were doing, so. And it was old-school. [Larsson] had to go take pictures of them and try to find out abut them. 'So, okay, this guy knows this one, or they went to the same meeting,' and so on, so he could try to map it out...He actually became the expert in Sweden on these issues."
Larsson's left-wing politics were influenced by his grandfather, who was largely responsible for raising him from the age of 1-8.
"He was very much inspired, especially by his grandfather who was actually a Communist, and he hated Nazi ideology," Georgsson comments. "I guess that's where it came from, [Larsson's] almost obsession with the extreme right."
He eventually went to work for the Swedish news agency TT, not as writer but a graphic designer.
"He was trying to be a writing journalist. But they [management] didn't really believe in him," the director explains. "He had a boss who said once, 'No, he can't write.'"
Larsson did write on the side, as the Swedish correspondent for Searchlight, a British magazine that covered racist, fascist and anti-Semitic activities in the U.K. Later he set up a foundation and a magazine devoted to tracking the far right in Sweden.
"It was hard work, no money," Georgsson says.
In the 1980s anti-immigrant sentiment grew in Sweden as the country started to become more multi-cultural, with newcomers arriving from Iran, other parts of the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Yugoslavia, Georgsson says. In some cases, Swedish industry went in search of laborers abroad.
"The company called Allgots, they had these airplanes, they flew down [to Yugoslavia], and they went around in the villages, and said, 'Do you want to work? Well, just get on the plane. Come to Sweden,'" Georgsson relates. 'We had a long tradition, actually, of immigration since the '50s."
The documentary contains alarming archival footage of violent protests staged by right-wing nationalist groups, who preyed on fears of a loss of Swedish racial identity.
"There is a quite strong Nordic resistance movement, they call themselves. And they are actually openly Nazis, right now. They march on the streets," Georgsson notes. "They can't do it with their Nazi symbols, but they create other symbols."
The political power of the far right has grown in Sweden, as it has in other parts of Europe and, arguably, the U.S. A desire to ward off undesirable immigrants is the common theme.
"It's connected to all these tendencies, all over the world--the nationalism, the authoritarianism...in countries like Poland, Hungary, and with Trump, and Brexit," Georgsson asserts.
Larsson saw the warning signs.
"This film is kind of relevant, in that way," the director observes, "that [Larsson] was seeing this a long time ago, where we were going."
How did Larsson go from being a far right antagonist to a crime novelist?
"He was very much interested in crime novels, but as a reader, actually," Georgsson reveals. "He was not a fiction writer. He was just doing that the last two or three years of his life, actually. He wrote those three books before he went to the publisher. He had an idea they would become successful. He was confident that would be his--what do you call it--retirement."
The Millennium series may have been a form of entertainment, but the novels were not disconnected from his political viewpoints.
"The books, they were kind of like an amusement to him. It was like a relaxing thing. It was more or less for fun," Georgsson believes. "But at the same time he put all the subjective content into them from what he was interested in [politically] and what he cared about. So, in a way the film is about the background of the books and the content of the books."
Larsson's all-consuming efforts as an editor, publisher and part-time crime writer put him under immense strain.
"He died from his work, actually. Because he worked very hard. He didn't sleep very much," Georgsson comments. "He didn't take care of his health that good. He was not a drinker, but he was smoking many cigarettes, drinking a lot of black coffee, and just eating junk food, no exercise at all."
Larsson died of a heart attack at 50, never to know how popular his books would become.
His death deprived the world of a champion of humanist values and an indefatigable combatant in the struggle against retrograde ideology.
"This film is kind of like a tragedy because his opponents, they are in the Parliament in Sweden now. Stieg's dead, so he lost that battle, in a way," notes Georgsson. "He could have done a lot of good things because he would have had this platform from his books. He would be interviewed all over the world and could speak about what he thought was important, really. And he would have had a lot of money to put into that [anti-right wing] magazine. I think he would probably have done that."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.