Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a gripping true crime conspiracy
If you look at my podcast stream at any given time you are bound to notice that they all center around a similar theme: true crime. Original I know. And I’m slightly embarrassed to say that my initial interest in Mads Brügger’s latest documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld had more to do with the words “cold” and “case” in close proximity to each other than they did with the Danish filmmaker himself, or indeed, the poor man whose death this film explores. I’m happy to report that if you enjoy a gripping true crime yarn, this film will not disappoint.
The details of this case are complicated and meandering, and like any good true crime story, the place you start isn’t quite the same place you end up. The simple mystery is what exactly caused a 1961 plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) that killed the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, and 15 other people. The simple answers of pilot error, weather, or equipment malfunction soon give way to the much sexier inquiry of conspiracy theory. The short of it is that Hammarskjöld, as a proponent of African self-determination, had many enemies with interests in keeping Africa in colonial bondage. Once the concept of a possible assassination is accepted, the film treats us to a slew of new players and additional conspiracies, including shadow organizations, mercenary groups, CIA, NSA, and MI6 meddling, and most important and shocking of all, medical experimentation and genocide. Crazy has never been so compelling, or seem so true.
Brügger’s partner is the private investigator Göran Björkdahl, who firmly believes the Secretary-General’s death was a murder, and together they interview African witnesses who saw the crash, as well as former members of the aforementioned clandestine groups and government agencies with supposed connections and information about the case. When we aren’t with these people or digging up the crash site with Brügger and Björkdahl in pith hats wielding metal detectors, we are back at the Congolese hotel room headquarters where Brügger dictates and summarizes the particulars of the case to a local assistant who types the information diligently and offers side commentary when feeling so inclined. The way these scenes are shot felt like an odd choice for the film and left me a little confused and waiting for an explanation that never came. However, with a story like this that requires so much historical and political background these scenes are necessary, as is, probably, the assistant.
I’m not familiar with Mads Brügger’s other work, but these stranger characteristics of the documentary suggest to me that as a filmmaker, Brügger is a little bit of a showman. For instance, one of the opening lines of the film lets us know that the villain of the story (who we meet much later), is a man who wears nothing but white. The line is said by Brügger, who is himself wearing all white as he utters the line in voiceover and sits in that Congolese hotel room pondering the case and organizing the information with his assistant. It’s these types of storytelling choices that sometimes speak to one of the worst tendencies of true crime media: when a journalist hints at inserting themselves in the story for dramatic embellishment. What are we to make of Brügger in his white outfit? When chasing a possible mass murderer, does the pursuer embody the pursued? But later, I came to realize that Brügger’s own insecurities about his abilities as a journalist in this case may have informed his costume choices. Best case scenario, he solves this 60 year-old mystery, and worst case, he besmirches the memory of Hammarskjöld, and the legitimacy of his possible murder, by turning this story into a crazy crackpot conspiracy stew. The expectations are high. If Brugger’s self-indulgences ever seem to get in the way though, Björkdahl’s quiet stoicism makes sure to swing us back around.
As I've stated, there are a lot of unbelievable pieces of information put forth in this film, each worthy of further investigation and inquiry. But regardless of the veracity of the film, it’s entertaining and creepy as hell, and on a more respectful note, it pays homage to a man that, had he lived, may have changed the political course of the African continent for the better during the struggles for independence. Unfortunate that we will never know.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld opens today at the Ritz Bourse.