Cold Case Hammarskjöld
(Denmark/Norway/Sweden/Belgium, 128 min.)
Dir. Mads Brügger
Fans of true crime documentary had better grab their notepads, stock up on sticky notes, and pour a mammoth cup of coffee. Cold Case Hammarskjöld unravels a peculiar true crime tale as director Mads Brügger (The Ambassador) revisits the 1961 mystery in which United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed under strange circumstances, killing Hammarskjöld and most of his crew. This is a wild tale masterfully and superbly told—or a dangerous lark of self-indulgent nonsense, depending how one assesses the evidence. Brügger probably contents himself with audiences trying to decide which of the two characterizations apply.
Brügger returns to the scene of the crime and asks questions the authorities failed to consider in the initial investigation. Hammarskjöld’s death is just the beginning as the trail leads Brügger down a wild rabbit hole filled with international conspiracies, covert militants, and white supremacists. I was hooked within minutes and completely transfixed by the intricate twists and turns that inspired Brügger to investigate the very foundations of truth as we perceive it.
Brügger assumes the roles of journalist, director, inquisitor, and performer as he retraces the Hammarskjöld case with his Swedish sidekick/investigator Göran Björkdahl. They begin by looking for the site of the plane crash and jaunt to Zambia with some metal detectors. They do a few interviews along the way and ferret out clues, which include stories of a bomb explosion, a yarn about a secret government conspiracy, an airborne assassin, and a sheet of metal that might be from the Hammarskjöld plane and might be riddled with bullet holes. “Might be” is the key phrase here as nothing adds up. This mystery makes Jeffrey Epstein’s death look like an open-and-shut case.
Keep in mind that Brügger is also playing the roles of director and storyteller, so none of this sleuthing unfurls quickly or in linear fashion. Cold Case Hammarskjöld features Brügger in African hotels reflecting upon the case in two sequences, purportedly after his complete investigation but the proximity of each session to the investigation is vague, leaving one wonder how much he’s trying to pick up on a case that’s gone cold in his own file.
Part of the ruse is that Brügger dictates his thoughts, explaining the case in obsessive stream of consciousness narration, to two African transcriptionists. One responds to his dictation more intellectually, asking questions or seeking clarification, while the other reacts more contemplatively and emotionally, particularly when the case spirals into a full-blown conspiracy about eradicating all the Blacks in Africa through the AIDS virus. Brügger ensures that nobody, particularly the viewer, is comfortable at any moment in the film and that’s why Cold Case Hammarskjöld is consistently unnerving: any chance that his discoveries might be real speaks to the most horrific and unspeakable aspects of humanity.
It would be a disservice to take readers too far down the rabbit hole of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, and an exhausting endeavour to try, since the doc is a densely packed odyssey in which one twist yields another. As soon as things become too strange to believe, Brügger ups the ante with some jaw-dropping discoveries. It also becomes harder to discern truth from fiction as the investigation becomes more intense and the layers blur in quickly cut sequences. Brügger’s film doesn’t get close to the question of who killed Dag Hammarskjöld, but he assembles an astonishing range of evidence that inspires audiences to challenge official narratives, look beyond the headlines, and resist convenient answers. The verdict: question everything.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld opens in Toronto on August 16 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.