Written and directed by Mads Brügger
Starring Mads Brügger, Göran Björkdahl and Dag Hammarskjöld
Running time: 2 hours and 8 minutes
by Stacey Osbeck
I consider myself well read, a bit of a history buff, and, given my Swedish heritage from my father’s side, more knowledgeable about Swedish affairs and Swedes in general. Taking all that into account, I must admit that before viewing Mads Brϋgger’s feature documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, I had never heard of Dag Hammarskjöld.
A Swedish national, Hammarskjöld served as Secretary General of the United Nations from 1953-1961. During that time Africa, with a combination of abundant natural resources and vulnerable countries newly independent from colonial rule, appeared ripe for the picking. The Secretary General put in great efforts to diffuse conflict on the continent and stabilize areas clearly susceptible to exploitation. As one may imagine, many would benefit if he mysteriously turned up dead.
September 18, 1961, his small plane crashed in Ndola, Rhodesia. Deemed a tragic accident, the world mourned his death. After examination, the airplane was buried and eventually life moved on.
Decades passed. Maybe the whole thing would have faded away except for a curious find Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish private detective, discovers in his father’s belongings. His father, a diplomat for the UN, had visited the crash site and been given a piece of the wreckage as a souvenir. The flat metal piece, about the size of a skateboard, appears to be riddled with bullet holes. This clue sets Björkdahl on a quest and by the time the film begins, he and journalist-filmmaker Mads Brϋgger have teamed up to uncover the mystery.
This Sundance winner for Directing in World Cinema Documentary seems like it should be a significant topic. The man in question worked for the UN, tried to build a better world, but somehow it feels a little small potatoes. One person they interview even tells them to figure out who killed President Kennedy, do something important. However, in trying to solve the murder, Brϋgger and Björkdahl uncover something more sinister, more organized than they imagined and ultimately prove Dag Hammarskjöld was the champion Africa needed more than they, or even the world, truly understood.
The way this documentary is arranged becomes almost as interesting as the subject matter itself. Cold Case Hammarskjöld is not a film where you can passively accept what is presented. From the beginning, parts are clearly staged and the audience needs to distinguish the real from contrivances for themselves.
Later Mads Brϋgger becomes self-reflective and comes clean to the audience that yes those earlier parts were a performance. It was an attempt to entertain us until the real story took off. He also reassures us his shenanigans are now done because they got a huge break that proves far more interesting.
After many years of research, some stories corroborate, but many questions remain until they find what will be their greatest source, Alexander Jones. As a man clearly burdened by his past, he spills everything. He goes beyond connecting the dots and helps bring a fuller picture into view. As he continues two things become clear: Alexander has a real penchant for air quotes and more importantly his broad knowledge of the facts may contain some inferences and guesses.
A death card is left on Hammarskjöld’s body. Alexander says it’s a well-known signature of the CIA and that’s why he asserts their involvement. I’m wondering if everyone knew that was their hallmark why would they place it so prominently sticking out of the Secretary General’s shirt collar and allow it to be photographed and documented. Seems sloppy. It may make more sense that another group, knowing this distinctive mark of the CIA, planted the card to throw investigators off their own scent. Whether this is the case or not it’s something to consider. However, a diversion tactic never appears to enter Alexander’s mind and he presents CIA involvement at face value without further scrutiny.
At another point, when questioned if he knows something to be true he responds: “Yeah. I would say 80%.” 80% sure? This number seems suspect. When someone’s sure they say I’m 99% sure, I’m 95% sure. 80% sounds like he’d like to be sure but is hedging his bets in case he’s not. Even Brϋgger, in an aside, expresses reservations: “It borders on fiction. Some of it is real, and some of it is very difficult to prove.”
Here’s where the beginning, where you had to separate the actual from a put-on, has prepared you for the rest of the film. Now, we the audience are primed to sit alongside the documentarians and pick information apart. We listen to Alexander Jones and others and must discern who feeds the filmmakers false tips, who tells the truth and, of the truth, what parts have been finessed.
Unlike the earlier antics of Brϋgger, there is no big reveal from the interviewees. This is real life and we see the finely tuned ear and careful consideration needed to be both a historical detective and documentary filmmaker.