Review – Cold Case Hammarksjöld

Director/Journalist Mads Brügger begins this documentary hilariously frank, with the disclaimer that “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery, or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory. If it is the latter, I’m sorry.” In 1961, Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld, then the Secretary-General of the United Nations, died in an airplane crash in South Africa in modern-day Zambia while flying to negotiate peace talks in the Congo. The cause of the crash has long been under speculation as Hammarskjöld supported the democratic independence of African countries against corporate interests. When Brügger teams up with private investigator Göran Björkdahl, they uncover the allegations of far more than just a nefarious assassination that would have global consequences. But can any of it actually be verified? Does it matter? Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a rare documentary that might be more interesting because of what it can’t prove than what it can. 

Brügger is no stranger to the value of showmanship and storytelling, back in 2011 he made a documentary called The Ambassador where he pretended to be a Liberian ambassador to uncover the blood diamond trade in Africa. At one point he even admits that he only joined Björkdahl in the Hammarskjöld investigation because it sounded exciting, and he’s now resorted to more cinematic attempts like hiring two African secretaries to dictate the story to while dressing up as the man they allege ran this secret organization involved in Hammarskjöld’s death and other evil missions in the region, all just to make the film hopefully more interesting against the constant dead ends and walls they hit. He knows this might all be bullshit – or at least most of it – but he knows how to make it engrossing and entertaining. 

This film is actually quite funny when it wants to be. Brügger does an “equipment check” before they go to uncover the site of where the plane wreckage was buried, and you think it’s gonna be this crazy high-tech stuff and all he has is some hats, shovels and a metal detector. It’s a hilarious bit of simple editing to cut to these few things after the buildup of the task. To cap it off, he’s got some cuban cigars to celebrate with if they find the wreckage. Brügger realizes the inherent comedy of these two odd, unassuming Scandinavian men going around asking about an event that happened almost 60 years ago.

All witnesses they speak to are quite old and most that could actually have interesting things to say have already died. But as they delve further, they uncover the existence of SAIMR (South African Institute for Maritime Research), an alleged white supremacist clandestine paramilitary organization that operated in the region, carried out the death of Hammarskjöld, and even alleges that they tried to infect the African people with the HIV virus under the guise of medical injections in order to kill them off. The last half hour of the film really makes some bold claims when they find a first-hand witness to the organization who is strangely quite open to talking about a lot of potentially damning things. It’s a real swing for the fences that I can’t help but admire. Hardly any of it can actually be backed up, but every bit of it is terrifyingly plausible. You sit there the whole film and just go “Holy shit they might actually be onto something.” It speaks to our natural and ever growing distrust of governments and institutions.

And that’s kind of the whole point of the film that sinks you down further and further as it goes along. The ecstatic truth in the story is far more important than the accountant’s truth. It leaves you with the damning feeling that even if this conspiracy happened, there’s simply no way to prove and account for it all anymore. And furthermore, even if there was – so what? What is anybody going to do about it? It’s quite easy to discern that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the government, but there’s no way to actually prove it all and even if we could, so what? Who is going to be held responsible? It’s harder to believe that Jeffrey Epstein wasn’t assassinated in his jail cell just a month ago than it is to believe that he was in fact assassinated in order to keep him from testifying about some of the world’s most powerful men’s ties to his pedophile trafficking. But so what? Let’s say it does get proved he was killed by powerful men who didn’t want him talking, would anything actually happen? What are any of us actually going to do about it? And that’s even before discussing the chance his victims had to finally have him prosecuted in court getting robbed away from them. The rich and powerful have never been held accountable, because that’s just not the way our society functions. Their power is so deeply entrenched in our world functions that it is seemingly impossible to stop them. What can any of us do about it? There is little to no faith in the institutions meant to uncover these kinds of things left, and why should there be? In a world where the accountant’s truth doesn’t seem to matter anymore, can we learn anything from the ecstatic truth at least?

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