The documentary film Cold Case Hammarskjöld is interesting enough, though less than it’d like to be. The film covers the 1961 death by plane crash of Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations, and the conspiracies surrounding the incident. Was it an accident? Was there a bomb? Was the plane shot down by white supremacist mercenaries?
Danish Director Mads Brügger characterizes Hammarskjöld as an anti-colonial idealist, and that made him a lot of enemies in the former colonial powers. The plane crashed in Ndola, on border of Congo and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Secretary General Hammarskjöld flew to Africa to broker a peace deal, but never made it to his destination. He was meeting with a rebel leader.
At the time, a Belgian mining company all but owned part of Northern Rhodesia. The mining corporations used mercenaries in lieu of armies, and were fighting against anti-colonial citizens. These social and political issues are central to the conspiracy theories. Even though he died at the crux of worldwide civil rights campaigns and received a posthumous Nobel Prize, he and his story have become relatively unknown in the United States in the years since.
Now that we know the basics, let’s get into the film structure. It isn’t a cut-and-dry documentary. What we might imagine to be straightforward in any other film is obscured by an almost surreal meta-documentary. Since the subject himself is not the actual subject, the conspiracies are, the viewer is instead entertained by the director’s not-subtle attention-grabs. Some scenes are clearly for comedic effect, leaving the viewer baffled by what he’s doing. It leads to some messy moments.
For example, the director and one of his partners in the investigation are in a hotel. On the bed, there are several items laid out in pairs: shovels, hats, metal detector, and cigars (for a successful dig). They plan to dig up the buried plane crash site. It’s a darkly comedic moment, one of several that made me press pause and rewind to laugh at the silliness. Its serious subject matter doesn’t quite align, making the whole scene feel fictional.
Brügger has a point he’s trying to make. He knows how the film will be sequenced, and his shenanigans have a purpose. He is directing and starring, all while wearing the same style outfit as the man they believe to be the murderer. He makes a spectacle of this story, and is hyper-specific in his directions to film all aspects. He threads scenes of himself telling a pair of African women typists, all in different African countries, the exposition he wants to use to provide direction to the film. It’s the “me” show.
The power dynamics are massive red flags. He is a white Danish man. He makes these black African women type and then read out his words, forcing his narrative through their voices as a filter. But the women, at first diligently typing everything, become more curious and invested as the film’s story goes on, eventually calling him out for the artifice of his documentary experiment. They get lost in the spectacle.
Brügger literally has his cards all laid out. It’s a shot of him placing dozens of aces of spades on a table. The ace of spades is apparently a CIA calling card. A photographer who saw the crash site heard a rumor about the playing card ace of spades being found on the body. It’s not subtle.
There’s a lot to this film, and around halfway through, it seems like there couldn’t possibly be more. There is a lot of spectacle for such little substance, and the director tries very hard to keep the viewers engaged. But when the person who is technically the character/subject (Hammarskjöld) is so flat, it’s hard to focus on caring about him specifically, beyond an hour. The mystery is more intriguing than the man, so it’s all the more funny that the obviously self-aware director approached it from the angle of a circus clown. Perspective changes everything in documentary work, and this film drives home the that the imagined truth, regardless of whether it’s actually true, is often much more magical than the official story.