Cold Case Hammarskjold Review

In 1961, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on his way to broker a peace deal in the Congo. The official stated cause of the crash was pilot error. However, considering Hammarskjöld was an outspoken proponent of African countries retaining autonomy over their resources, and that the rebel leader he was meeting with was a puppet of a Belgian mining company, rumors circulated for years that foul play was afoot.

Danish journalist Mads Brügger’s documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, looks into the details of that case, and explores the very likely possibility that Hammarskjöld’s death was in fact a murder. Brügger, a gonzo provocateur known for genre-blending docs like The Red Chapel and The Ambassador, is joined in his research by Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl, who has his own connection to the case. Along the way, their investigation uncovers an even bigger conspiracy involving imperialism, murder and attempted genocide, one with staggering implications.

As is the case with many of Brügger’s films, there are a fair amount of self-aware shenanigans involved in the movie’s framework. Brügger combines the clandestine subject matter of Jon Ronson, the performative streak of Michael Moore and the shamelessness of Hunter S. Thompson, to the point where it can be tough to tell how sincere he is about the work. But, to his credit, the journalist is pretty up-front about his motives. He flat-out tells us his main interest in the Hammarskjöld case is that it gives him an excuse to dive into weird conspiracy theories and secret organizations. The film’s performative elements, like trying to locate the remains of Hammarskjöld’s plane with a metal detector and a couple of shovels, or hiring a couple of African secretaries to take dictation, are there to help bring dramatic interest to a story Brügger fears isn’t panning out.

But then, Brügger and Björkdahl hit paydirt, and the film shifts focus dramatically from Hammarskjöld’s shady end to the organization who most likely brought it about. The film tells us that the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), under the leadership of a mysterious man named Keith Maxwell, which was essentially a white supremacy army employed by foreign governments to destabilize countries. One way they did this was by trying to medically engineer the death of poor black Africans. This leads Brügger and Björkdahl to yet another murder investigation related to a SAIMR member who tried to blow the whistle. The implication is that all of this was under the direction of foreign governments looking for ways to retain their control over corporate interests in Africa, at any cost.

What Brügger and Björkdahl uncover is jaw-droppingly horrific, and anyone with even an ounce of decency in them should be outraged that it’s gone unaddressed for so long. However, the validity of what they find is still shrouded in mystery to a frustrating degree. The performative elements that make Cold Case Hammarskjöld so intriguing at the start threaten to become the film’s undoing after a while. Brügger calls former SAIMR mercenaries and officers, but hits dead end after dead end, until he randomly calls a man who’s happy to give the director all the information he needs. A trip to a victim’s mother’s home also provides a mother lode of damning evidence that points the finger right back at the rich white guys deftly avoiding Brügger’s questions in the first half. Yet another item, a handwritten memoir, practically ties up the Hammarskjöld mystery in a neat bow.

Were we getting this information from another source, it might be easier to take at face value. But given Cold Case Hammarskjöld’s structure, and Brügger’s upfrontness about his proclivity for stunts, it’s hard to know what to make of what we’re getting here. Some of the questions Brügger asks his sources, particularly Alexander Jones, the former mercenary who comes clean, feel leading, and the answers a little too freely given. This isn’t to say that the director is manufacturing his interviewees’ responses, but that, especially in Jones’ case, it wouldn’t take that much work for a skilled liar to create a narrative that fits what the filmmaker wants to hear. Throughout the movie, it’s hard not to take everything we hear with a grain of salt.

Of course, that may be the point. In stories of political murder and secretive underworld intrigue, it’s hard to know what you can reliably believe. There is an inherent dramatic layer to documentaries in this mold, a kind of unbelievability that Brügger has proven throughout his career he’s pretty good at aping. However, the pitch-black story at the heart of Cold Case Hammarskjöld has world-changing potential, if proven true beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not something to be played with. The mysterious nature of the story makes an interesting framework, but it requires a straight answer, one the world may not be likely to get. At the very least, it requires a bit more transparency than it gets here.  

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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About the Author

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic, proud Midwesterner and pie enthusiast. Find her on twitter at @indieabby88.