On September 18, 1961, United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld boards a private plane bound for a diplomatic mission in Ndola, Rhodesia. Hours later, he and the entire crew are killed when the plane crashes just miles outside Ndola Airport. An official investigation concludes that “pilot error” is to blame for the diplomat’s demise. The wreckage is hastily buried, the files are sealed in a confidential dossier, and the case is closed.
Flash forward 57 years…
A man, dressed impeccably from head-to-toe in a white linen suit, paces around the Hotel Memling in Kinshasa, DR Congo. He dictates his improbable story to a baffled secretary. The elegant Black woman dutifully click-clacks away on her dilapidated typewriter as the frazzled White man’s story becomes increasingly outlandish and tangential. He laments that he has undertaken either “the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.” The man is Danish journalist/director Mads Brügger and the alleged murder victim is Hammarskjöld.
Exhaustively researched over the last six years, Brügger’s enthralling documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld crisscrosses multiple decades and countries to find the truth behind the mysterious plane crash that killed the UN leader. Brügger is accompanied by a Swedish investigator whom he dubs “the hero of the story,” Göran Björkdahl. Decades ago, Björkdahl inherited a steel plate riddled with holes from his father — a plate, his father contends, originates from the Hammarskjöld crash site and proves the plane was shot down. Brügger, inspired by visions of renegade fighter pilots and clandestine government agendas, gives voice to Björkdahl’s lonely crusade with the appropriate idealistic fervor and simmering paranoia.
Brügger insinuates himself into the narrative as the mystery unfolds, playing a central role as both inquisitor and filmmaker. With his bald head, red stubble, and demonically pointy ears, Brügger is adept at drawing attention, and he clearly relishes the spotlight. His droll presence will inevitably draw parallels to another purveyor of “ecstatic truth,” director Werner Herzog. One can almost hear Herzog’s trademark monotone as Brügger assembles his gear to excavate the Hammarskjöld crash site; two shovels, two Cuban cigars, and two white pith helmets “to protect our Scandinavian skin.”
Like Herzog, Brügger travels to the deepest reaches of Africa to engage the locals. Some of the film’s most compelling moments come courtesy of eyewitness reports excitedly relayed by long-ignored citizens on the ground. Tales of buzzing aircraft, loud explosions, and blazing fireballs on Hammarskjöld’s plane spur Brügger and Björkdahl to widen the scope of their investigation. Their obsessive quest leads them to a shadowy organization called The South African Institute of Maritime Research (or SAIMR). Brügger is tantalized by the notion that murdering Dag Hammarskjöld might be the least of SAIMR’s crimes.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld delivers plenty of goosebumps, with Brügger and Björkdahl uncovering revelations both unexpected and genuinely shocking. This review shall leave specific events and names unchecked, but it’s apparent that SAIMR was involved in various unsavory ‘destabilization’ campaigns over the decades following Hammarskjöld’s death. Brügger interrogates retired government spooks, tracks down mysterious figures with codenames like “The Lone Ranger” and “Congo Red” and ponders the motivations and mental stability of SAIMR’s enigmatic, L. Ron Hubbard-esque leader who compulsively dresses in white.
It’s up to the viewer to decide what constitutes truth in this sordid tale. Brügger’s own witnesses, including a seemingly unimpeachable retired military commander, are later caught in falsehoods. Especially provocative is a former officer in SAIMR, who drops several bombshells about geopolitical manipulation that strain the limits of believability. Brügger’s interrogation of this twitchy SAIMR henchman feels like the scene from Oliver Stone’s JFK in which Joe Pesci’s tortured insider grows more agitated and forthcoming as the questions intensify. It’s dynamite cinema that sweeps you into a world of intrigue that rivals any Hollywood thriller.
Like the best of these Hollywood thrillers, it’s only later that you start to contemplate the plot holes in Cold Case Hammarskjöld. The sensational nature of the story certainly raises doubts, but it’s the stylistic liberties and personal motivations of the director himself that gives one pause. At one point, Brügger confesses he was never particularly interested in Hammarskjöld or the ramblings of “elderly, White, liver-spotted men” eager to discuss some ancient mystery that nobody even remembers. Ever the showman, he’s willing to distract from his “failures as a journalist” with fancy white costumes and role-playing to provide his movie with a satisfying conclusion. While his investigative sincerity is never in question, it’s apparent Brügger won’t allow the truth to interfere with a good story.
Brügger, again like Herzog, seems drawn to stories about White interlopers pilfering into matters of Black sovereignty. His previous film, 2011’s riotous (pseudo) documentary The Ambassador, finds Brügger masquerading as a Liberian ambassador who is determined to infiltrate the African blood diamond trade. Good intentions and journalistic integrity teeter precariously on the edge of fiction, with Brügger always in danger of losing himself to the allure of his own charade. He seems to be perfecting an intoxicating, propulsive style of documentary filmmaking that invites you to join his personal crusade, even as you question his techniques and judgment.
Just what is truth and what is conjecture may remain unclear when the final credits roll on Cold Case Hammarskjöld, but Brügger’s cinematic journey into the sociopolitical abyss is never less than compelling. It’s a rabbit hole of conspiracy and discovery that will make your skin crawl, a tangible reminder that the search for truth often courts repulsion and madness. Or, it might be a complete fabrication in the minds of White men obsessed with ruling their own little corner of the world. Either way, it makes for one hell of a story.