The Girl Who Played with Fire
Special to The History Place
In April I reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for The History Place. I noted that this Swedish film, based on journalist Stieg Larsson’s novel of the same name, presented a modern-day murder mystery grounded in a little-known Swedish past pock marked by Nazi sympathizers who belied the Scandinavian nation’s reputation for neutrality.
The sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, dramatizes the second of the late Larsson’s enormously popular trilogy. In this second installment, the emphasis has shifted from serial killers and other mass murderers to human trafficking and Cold War espionage.
When a journalist and his girlfriend/scholar – who are jointly seeking to expose the exploitation of trafficked women in Sweden – are murdered execution style, Lisbeth Salander – the “Girl” of the books’ titles – is accused of the double homicide. Soon her court-appointed guardian is found kneeling beside his bed with a bullet to the brain and Salander is sought for this third execution as well.
The books’ other protagonist, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, is one of the very few who believe Lisbeth to be innocent. The two work independent of one another, but in surreptitious contact, to bring the real culprits to justice. Each, I might add, has a very different notion of what is meant by “justice.” Blomkvist not only wants the killers arrested; he also wants an exclusive exposé for his muckraking magazine. Salander wants to kill the killers.
Without spoiling the story for those who haven’t treated themselves to the book, let me say that the linchpin of the criminal conspiracy underlying both the human trafficking and the executions, one Zala, is a Cold War relic. His background, gradually revealed as the film’s plot unfolds, exposes another aspect of Sweden’s underbelly.
Just as we may tend to think of World War II era Sweden as a neutral nation, notwithstanding extensive Nazi sympathy and collaboration among at least some elements of the Swedish upper crust, we also may mistakenly believe that Sweden was a disinterested observer on the sidelines of the Cold War. Indeed, as a Vietnam-era veteran, my impression of Sweden during the 1960s – a haven for U.S. Army deserters.
While that impression is accurate so far as it goes, The Girl Who Played with Fire postulates a Swedish security service that was absolutely delighted to embrace a KGB defector. In exchange for Zala’s valuable revelations, which the Swedes could trade to the U.S. and British intelligence for return favors, his Nordic hosts not only provided him with money. They also protected him from the justice system when he ran amuck.
For those whose stereotypical Swede is the secretary in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the “Girl” films are eye-openers. In them, we glimpse a Sweden – past and present – plagued by the same official and unofficial corruption and perversity which critics of American society love to lay at our feet.
The “take away” from this pair of films is that the Sweden of WWII, of the Cold War, and of the 21st century global economy is not, and never was, merely a land of lilting blonds and IKEA furniture, untainted by the darker currents of world history. Rather, we are granted a glimpse of a Sweden that had its Nazi sympathizers, its Cold War spies, and now its hands in the global trafficking of human beings. And all this in the context of a rattling good yarn!
Rated R for brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language.
Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the author of "Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education" (Praeger 2009) and Handbook for Student Law (Peter Lang 2010).