I love a good conspiracy theory. Don’t get me wrong, though: not all conspiracy theories are fun. Some are silly, some are crazy, and some, to be honest, are just too dire to really think about. But in the new documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, director Mads Brügger posits a conspiracy theory that is a little bit of everything. And that’s exactly what makes it so compelling.
We are used to scandals today, but, back in 1961, when Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN Secretary General, died in a plane crash in Africa, it made headlines worldwide. Only the second Secretary General ever, Hammarskjöld was someone who took his role seriously and was a vocal and powerful supporter and defender of nations asserting their independence, especially in Africa, where countries were increasingly rebelling against centuries of colonial rule. Looking back, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that these colonial powers, such as France and Great Britain, whose economic interests in the continent were deep-seated and dependent on their control, whether directly or by puppet regimes, would have felt threatened by the world’s top diplomat making it his mission to support efforts for independence. The question of whether or not any foreign government may have actually had a hand in the death of Hammarskjöld is one that has been lingering for nearly 60 years. If, however, you expect Brügger’s film to contain some bombshell revelation that will topple MI-6 or the CIA, you might be disappointed—slightly. But if you like real-life mysteries that have layers upon layers of lies, cover-ups, villains and geo-political implications, you might just love this story.
But it does take a little time to settle into. Brügger’s style is a little odd at first, as he inserts himself as our narrator, dictating the story to secretaries while sitting in a hotel room in Africa. Whether it’s his strong Danish accent or the fact that the volume of his speaking voice always seems just a little louder than it should be, it plays almost to comic effect at the start. In fact, there is much more humor in this documentary than you would expect, and, much to Brügger’s credit, it is often at his own expense. But this only belies the seriousness of the subject he is covering, which he dives into in great detail.
Brügger’s tale is inspired, motivated and led by Swedish private investigator, Göran Björkdahl, who has, according to Brügger, become obsessed with the Hammarskjöld incident. What made the plane crash? Why was there no real investigation? If it wasn’t an accident, who was responsible? But once they start pulling on one thread, another five appear. What starts out as an investigation of one plane crash turns into something much bigger and, if possible, even darker. It is all these various paths that this story travels down that makes this movie so fascinating, if not a little head-spinning. I couldn’t shake the image of that classic movie trope of a dogged detective working a complicated case, standing in front of a huge board with dozens of pictures pinned to it, threads going from one picture to another as if a giant puzzle begging to be solved. While Brügger is far from a classic hero type, his fortitude feels much the same, as he is a relentless pursuer who will go down any path on the chance it may reveal a truth. It’s all worth it as the details, revelations and implications revealed in this two-hour movie are stunning and often chilling.
The story is chock full of colorful characters (other than Brügger) and suspense, as Brügger builds the tale to a climax that turns out to be quite shattering. Even though it probably could (and should) be about 20 minutes shorter, Brügger structures a real whodunit within a larger examination of the nature of power, evil and the lengths men will go to for control.