To fully appreciate Cold Case Hammarskjold, you need to understand something about director Mads Brugger. He's equal parts documentarian and provocateur. For his films, he generally assumes some kind of “character” that allows him to dive deeper into whatever the subject is. Or so he claims. A previous film, The Ambassador, had him pretending to be a businessman looking to open a matchstick factory in the middle of the war-torn Central African Republic. This allowed him to explore the massive corruption in that section of the world. Knowing his style is important because it will affect the way you view this new film, which either rips the lid off a scandal with troublesome global implications or simply proves how easy it is to buy into a conspiracy theory.
Brugger is dressed completely in white as we meet him. He's in a hotel room, dictating the story he's about tell to two different African secretaries. Why? Because that's what the villain did, he informs us. We'll get to that in a minute. First he gives us the background on what his film will be about.
In 1961, Dag Hammarskjold, the Secretary General of the United Nations, was killed in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia. Various factions have expressed a belief that this was no mere accident, but rather a politically-motivated killing. Hammarskjold wanted to give the African people more independence, which flew directly in the face of the colonialism happening there at the time. Together with Goran Bjorkdahl, a Swedish man long obsessed with the incident, Brugger sets out to determine once and for all what really happened.
Here's where Cold Case Hammarskjold gets both complicated and gripping. The trail leads to a shadowy government agency called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), run by a shady man named Keith Maxwell who may have been trying to exterminate black Africans during apartheid via a shocking method. (He's the villain who always wore white and had an African secretary.) Maxwell would seem to be the key to the mystery, although every new piece of explosive evidence brings with it more questions or something contradictory. Brugger and Bjorkdahl repeatedly fail to get fully ahead of the story because it's like peeling an onion, with an endless number of layers stacked on top of each other.
Watching Brugger assemble – and get befuddled by – the clues is riveting. What he appears to discover rocks you to the core. If the arrow does indeed point where it looks like it does, the filmmaker has uncovered one of the most devastatingly evil acts in history, one that Hammarskjold had to die to keep covered up. Of course, we're well aware that this could equally be a series of red herrings. Brugger can't make everything line up. Is that because the story is complex and evidence may have been deleted/manipulated to keep it hidden? Or has the director fallen into the rabbit hole of a conspiracy theory, pulling us down with him? Either way, Cold Case Hammarskjold is an enlightening, can't-take-your-eyes-off-it look at how the quest for answers is never as easy as it should be.
With intellectually engaging subject matter and an innovative style that adds to the mystique, this is a movie any documentary fan will want to see and form their own opinion about.
out of four
Cold Case Hammarskjold is unrated, but contains language and discussions of troubling incidents. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.