In 1961, a plane crashed in Ndola, Rhodesia. One of the passengers who perished in the accident was Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He’d been negotiating a cease-fire between troops in the Republic of Katanga and U.N. forces. Hammarskjöld was 56 years old. These are facts.
Mads Brügger knows the facts of this case, of course. But he’s also interested in sifting through the official record to find what you might call the truth behind the truth. A Danish filmmaker with a love of immersive, gonzo-investigative journalism — he used comedians as a ruse to clandestinely film inside North Korea in The Red Chapel (2009) and impersonated a Liberian ambassador to expose diplomatic corruption in The Ambassador (2011) — he has a tendency to put himself in the middle of the muckraking mix. The slim, bald, redbearded Brügger has a screen presence you might describe as Wener Herzog hopped up on cold brew and Sudafed. And he had a sense that there may be more going on here regarding Hammarskjöld’s death than the authorities were letting on.
So, when he hears that an independent Swedish investigator named Göran Björkdahl has uncovered some interesting tidbits regarding the crash — like, for example, that it may not have been a crash and a recovered piece of the plane appears to be riddled with bullet holes — Brügger smells a story. The two men begin interviewing witnesses and digging around, hearing tales of Belgian mercenaries and puppetmaster mining corporations and secret dossiers and characters with nicknames like “the Mad Bomber” and “the Lone Ranger.” A few say they saw another jet actually shooting at the DC-10 that night. A photographer mentions seeing the Ace of Spades tucked into Hammarskjöld’s collar — a calling card and a death card. Something called the South African Institute of Marine Research (SAIMR) keeps getting namedropped.
And then Brügger uncovers, or thinks he uncovers, something far more nefarious then just an assassination. You may find your jaw dropping when the exact nature of his find is revealed, and recall that such things have more precedents than we’d like to admit. Or you may find yourself thinking back to a sequence near the beginning of the film. While sitting in a hotel room that he claims is the same room where a mystery man always dressed in white (“the villain of the story”) once resided, he declares that the story he and Björkdahl have stumbled upon is “the world’s biggest murder mystery, or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.” Which way you naturally lean regarding those two poles — exposé or elaborate self-own — colors how you view Cold Case Hammarskjöld. But it pays to remember that you’re dealing with a showman who’s never met a meta flourish he didn’t love, as well as a person who’s willing to turn himself into some sort of pushy holy fool in the name of infotainment.
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It may be a bit of a stretch to call what Brügger delivers here a documentary, exactly — it’s a “true” crime story with an emphasis on the quotes. The talking heads are unreliable. The veracity is questionable. But it’s one hell of a ripping yarn, and in the end, you get the sense that the chance to potentially dabble in real-life tales of espionage and cabals nearly takes precedent over whether it’s all a fanciful piece of airport-novel fiction writ large. You’ll find yourself caught up in the skullduggery of it all, and of a narrative in which a lone man with a microphone and a camera attempts to battle both a far-reaching network and his doubts about the same. But the timing of the film is interesting. We happen to find ourselves faced with another odd tale of coincidences and untimely demises and the shady dealings of the rich and powerful. Suddenly, a lot of fanciful things don’t seem so unbelievable. What’s that old saw about “just because you’re paranoid…”?