“You know the feeling you have when you’re really close to something, but you’re further away than ever before?”
Documentarian Mads Brügger didn’t particularly care about Dag Hammarskjöld when he began investigating the mysterious plane crash that took the U.N. Secretary General’s life in 1961. In his captivating new film Cold Case Hammarskjöld, he explains with cheeky wit that “at the end of the day, most people have never heard of Dag Hammarskjöld, and when you get to see him, he comes across a goofy character in a screwball comedy.” So why spend six years interrogating whether Hammarskjöld’s death was really caused by “pilot error”?
Like most amateur sleuths who’ve blown up out of the true crime podcast boom, Brügger felt something lurking under the surface of history. Maybe he and case expert Göran Björkdahl, whose father supposedly recovered a piece of Hammarskjöld’s plane tattered by bullets, would uncover the truth. Maybe they’d actually put the conspiracy theories to rest. But if nothing else, Brügger could amuse himself; the quest for truth offered the filmmaker a chance to dress up in Bond Villain whites and stage shadowy cutaways of him playing solitaire, as if life were a ‘70s conspiracy thriller. When you’re the guy making the movie, you can do whatever the hell you want!
The first hour of Cold Case Hammarskjöld makes headway into the case as Brügger leans hard into the tropes of thriller fiction. Circumstantial evidence suggests a bomb, a fighter pilot, or a combination of both may have brought Hammerskjold’s plane down, in a plot to benefit mining interests in the secessionist State of Katanga. Brügger holes up in the Hotel Memling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to dictate his findings to a secretary who taps away at an old fashioned typewriter. He and Björkdahl sift through piles of paperwork as Brügger does his best Nick Broomfield impression. The duo combs a field near the airport in Ndola, Zambia where the pieces of Dag Hammarskjöld’s crashed airplane may be buried, hoping a metal detector could uncover the smoking gun clue. We feel the dots connecting. The genre tropes flex their might. Brügger might be onto something.
The filmmaker laces Cold Case Hammarskjöld with the comedy of uncertainty, but the meta approach comes to a head at the halfway mark. Where is all this clue-gathering going? He’s not quite sure, and suddenly the audience isn’t either. Akin to Serial and the podcast’s many imitators, Cold Case Hammarskjöld kind of just rolls along, promising major revelations that, in the end, could fizzle out into nothing. No amount of production values will rescue a movie without a good ending. Brügger is aware.
”I was hoping this charade could cover up my failures as a journalist,” he jokes, “but instead, something much worse happened: all my fantasies came true.”
There are revelations in Cold Case Hammarskjöld, jaw-dropping ones, and they’re delivered with the caveat that Brügger isn’t a newspaper journalist backed by rigorous fact-checking, but an agitprop provocateur willing to rip open a can of worms to start a conversation. The filmmaker stumbles into the existence of the South African Institute for Maritime Research, a shadow group supposedly behind the theoretical Hammarskjöld assassination with ties to an enigmatic L. Ron Hubbard-type dressed in — you guessed it — Bond Villain whites. When Brügger finally convinces an ex-SAIMR member to pull back the curtain on the organization, his single source unloads an accusation that, if true, would be one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.
Like the most viral true crime podcasts, the shocking episode is presented through Brügger’s wandering lens, leaving the audience (and more seasoned journalists) to decide what to do next. He chased the Dag Hammarskjöld conspiracy theories on a lark, and came out the other end with history-rattling allegations. The end. That’s it.
But for fans of the genre, the drip-drip-drip of the investigation, along with the droll, almost comedic presentation, makes Cold Case Hammarskjöld essential. Whether it’s sturdy enough to make real change seems to be, at least from where Brügger is sitting, someone else’s problem.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld is out now in limited release.