Film Review: “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” Delivers a Brilliant, Brutal Docu-Autopsy

Film poster: “Cold Case Hammarskjöld”

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Mads Brügger, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.

Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) was the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, serving from 1953 until his death in a plane crash in Africa. An idealistic and militant soul, the Swedish diplomat put words into action, involving himself directly in the post-colonial struggles of the continent where he eventually lost his life. The circumstances surrounding the fatal accident have always struck people as suspicious, given that Hammarskjöld was on his way to mediate between two sides in a conflict in what is now Zambia. No definitive answers have been given to the many questions asked by sleuths, both official and amateur, over the years. ‘Tis a very cold case, indeed.

I vaguely knew who Hammarskjöld was before sitting down to watch the innovative and thrilling new documentary about his demise, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, but quickly realized I need not fear missing the historical context, as director Mads Brügger (The Saint Bernard Syndicate) provides all the set-up we need to quickly enter the story as fully informed viewers. A Danish television journalist, as well as filmmaker, Brügger has no problem putting himself in front of the camera, making his own personal journey deep into the mystery of Hammarskjöld’s death the arc of the narrative. He is not alone, partnering with Swedish investigator Göran Björkdahl – whose father was involved in the original analysis of Hammarskjöld’s crash – to form a duo that is as tenacious as it is aggressive, stopping at nothing to solve the great unsolved riddle (or was it a crime?) of how, or by who’s hand, Hammarskjöld died.

Göran Björkdahl and Mads Brügger on the hunt for facts in COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD ©Magnolia Pictures

It’s a dense affair, but never less than gripping, moved along at a brisk clip by Brügger’s irreverent presence and open musings on his mise-en-scène. As he states (truthfully or not), he doesn’t know why he has hired not one, but two, “African secretaries” to transcribe his words within the movie into a film script that they, and he, occasionally read out loud. Perhaps it’s a recoginition that, as a European in African, Brügger comes with his own colonial baggage, impossible to shed. Dressed all in “safari white” – exactly like an enigmatic man seen at the time of the accident, who may (or may not) have been the mastermind behind a possible assassination – Brügger appears, at times, to be on the verge of mania. Yes, there is a bright flame that burns within him, but it is of inspiration rather than madness (though the two may not be all that far apart). What starts as a rambling odyssey down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, however, eventually turns into a startling tale about virulent white supremacy run amok. Imagine a racist nightmare mixed with absurdity and psychotic violence, and you’ll have a sense of what Brügger uncovers.

As much meditation on the art of storytelling as anything else, with Hammarskjöld merely the vehicle by which Brügger navigates the line between fact and fiction, Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a marvelous example of the feint, parry and strike method of information delivery. This plot thread leads seemingly nowhere? OK, let’s forget it and look over here. But soft, what new discovery from yonder window breaks? Let’s explore! And wonder of wonders, it leads back to where we thought we were lost. And on and on. Still, at the heart of the tale is a deeply disturbing revelation of the depths of racial animosity that lead people to murder and genocide. The structure and style of the documentary may skirt the satirical, but the center is cold as death. Laugh we must, lest we cry. Profound and moving, Cold Case Hammarskjöld is an absolute must-see.

Göran Björkdahl and Mads Brügger digging for facts in COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD ©Magnolia Pictures

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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