REVIEW: Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019 – Documentary)

Theatrical Release Poster – Magnolia Pictures / Camera Film

The following is a review of Cold Case Hammarskjöld — Directed by Mads Brügger.

In Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld, a Danish filmmaker and journalist teams up with Göran Björkdahl from Sweden who has inherited a particular obsession from his father. Björkdahl is obsessed with the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN General Secretary who died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia in 1961. Together, Brügger and Björkdahl hope to uncover what exactly happened to Hammarskjöld by investigating the theory that he was murdered. But, in doing so, Brügger and Björkdahl come upon a complex conspiracy theory about a mysterious paramilitary organization, the so-called South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), with sinister plans for the continent.

Mads Brügger’s latest documentary begins with Brügger, dressed head-to-toe in white (which we are immediately told is the preferred clothing of his story’s villain), telling an African woman that she must type the following on the typewriter in front of her: “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory. If the latter is the case, I am very sorry.” What follows is an entertaining, jaw-dropping, disturbing, and twisty documentary that, if the whistleblower presented here is to be believed, could have incredible real-life implications.

Mads Brügger is a colorful but sometimes openly scrupleless Danish journalist and filmmaker who, internationally, is known best for his controversial, stunt documentaries Det Røde Kapel (int. title: The Red Chapel), in which he and two comedians fooled the North Korean regime into letting them film in the country under false pretenses, and Ambassadøren (int. title: The Ambassador), in which he went undercover to pretend to be a Liberian diplomat to the Central African Republic.

I don’t think it would be wrong to say that Brügger is obsessed with characters defined by their villainy. In The Ambassador, he, very excitedly, brings up the notion that a name that he has just learned reminds him of spy-thriller novels. In Cold Case Hammarskjöld, he, to reiterate, dresses in the attire worn by the villain — Keith Maxwell — of his documentary. Throughout his films, he often wears these blacked-out aviator sunglasses. He stays at the hotels that his so-called villain supposedly stayed at. Time and time again, Brügger is seen playing around with dozens upon dozens of ace of spades cards, which was the card that was allegedly found in Dag Hammarskjöld’s shirt collar when he was found lifeless.

Brügger takes great pleasure in his play-acting. His documentary’s somewhat showy and pretentious framing device is alluring. Brügger, though sometimes very offensive in his previous films, is an entertaining character, and he definitely knows it. One of the more entertaining scenes in the first half of the documentary is when he lays out his plan to dig up the wreckage of the plane that Hammarskjöld died in. He does this with neat, deadpan humor. He plans to use the following items for the excavation: two shovels, two celebratory cigars, and helmets to protect Björkdahl and Brügger’s ‘Scandinavian skin,’ as he puts it. Björkdahl doesn’t miss the mark, as he impassively responds that he doesn’t smoke.

For a sizable part of the documentary, we follow Björkdahl, Brügger, or them both as they chase down anyone who knew this person, that other person, or saw what had happened in the early 1960s. We see them go off on a massive tangent revolving around Keith Maxwell, and we see them fail to excavate the plane wreckage. It’s very interesting. It is entertaining. But Brügger is getting weary (or, at the very least, he wants us to believe that they are at a standstill).

This happens about halfway through the documentary, when, all of a sudden, Brügger wants to be honest with us. He admits that he has had to fall back on the showy and somewhat entertaining facade. There’s a reason why he’s dressed like Keith Maxwell, and why he has hired these women to type for him. He’s been pretentious and showy for one simple reason: he thinks it’s all been for naught. They’ve reached a dead-end. The movie is coming apart, or so he claims. But then comes the eureka-moment, when he is at his lowest, and that’s when you feel a jolt of genuine excitement as an audience member.

Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld is this year’s Icarus or Catfish. Which is to say that it is one of those documentaries that start as one thing and becomes something else over the course of the film. But, even though Icarus was a thriller with some real-life implications, the narrative presented in Cold Case Hammarskjöld is something else. Some of the statements that one whistleblower makes are jaw-dropping and terrifying. Though I would rather let the film reveal these statements than describe them for you now, I will say that the most terrifying claim revolves around contaminated vaccinations.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld is not only the best thing Mads Brügger has ever done but also one of the best documentaries of the year thus far. It is a thrilling, (somewhat) convincing, damning, and potentially terrifying documentary that makes you want to do your own research. But, on top of that, it makes you want to scream for the documentarians to leave the continent for their own safety — because if SAIMR is as dangerous as their whistleblower claims, then what is going to stop the clandestine organization from taking out two Scandinavians who are asking too many questions?

But is it too ‘incredible’ to be true? It is the kind of documentary that you have to see to believe. And, even then, you still might not. Because the character offering up the most information has no form of documentation for his time at SAIMR, but the stories that he gives the Scandinavians could fill hundreds of fictionalized spy-thriller novels. Even more frightening is the notion that his stories, if they, indeed, are true, could potentially destabilize the continent and ruin the reputation of actual governments. Furthermore, I must admit that I got the feeling that the whistleblower was being improbably open with the documentarians. Some might argue that he was telling the interviewers what they wanted to know and that they had, in their excitement, unintentionally spoon-fed the whistleblower his answers.

It seems to be rather difficult to verify the claims that the whistleblower makes, and, as the New York Times article trying to tear-down the documentary does make note of, it is dangerous to spread information that may destabilize the continent and actively stop people from seeking the help they need through vaccinations. But, of course, if Brügger somehow discovered the truth, then the story needs to be told. It’s important to be skeptical and careful in choosing to believe this conspiracy theory, but Brügger does present us with a whistleblower who will make your jaw drop.

If you arm yourself with a tinfoil hat, multiple grains of salt, and healthy skepticism, then you’ll probably be captivated by Brügger’s murder mystery conspiracy tale that is incredibly entertaining and undeniably terrifying, but also quite dangerous, in more ways than one. It may not be airtight journalism, but it is nevertheless an incredible, must-watch documentary. I’m not sure if it is too ‘incredible’ to be true. But, as a film, it is too thrilling, captivating, damning, terrifying, and astonishing to miss or dismiss.

8.8 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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