Published on August 21st, 2019 | by Dan Nicholls0
Cold Case Hammarskjöld
While there are some ego-driven missteps by Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger, Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a well spun yarn with plenty of shocking wtf moments.
The seemingly accidental flight crash that killed United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961 is an intriguing mystery, but it’s the branches that spread to and from it that generate some most fascinating surprises. Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a new documentary by Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger that unveils unseemly truths and conspiracy theories about past Apartheid politics in Africa and current racial struggles that will still extend for generations.
To connect the dots between Hammarskjöld and a shadowy organization called SAIMR would spoil the twists of the true tale and also read like something out of a James Bond plot. The best documentaries are the ones that can hook you regardless of your preexisting familiarity with the subject matter and Cold Case is no different, with Brügger and crew amping up the dramatic flourishes and meta commentary about the documentary’s own role in this evolving thread to strap you to your seat. What makes films like this so entertaining is their ability to induce whiplash often and unexpectedly, hallmarks of the most memorable documentaries.
The film, despite its many zigs and zags, slows down momentum at times due to Brügger’s overwhelming directorial decision to frame the story so heavily through his own eyes and, it comes off a bit as such, his own ego. We see the director sitting in a hotel room dictating his documentary’s script to a secretary. As he dictates, we see dramatizations of little vignettes starring Brügger himself doing exactly what is being dictated. It isn’t a Charlie Kaufman-esque Russian Doll but rather a boring and indulgent waste of minutes spent establishing Brügger in the spotlight when the movie really doesn’t call for it.
The role of documentarian as star in their own features is nothing new, of course, but there’s a distinction between a filmmaker with an eye for capturing a story and one who leans towards being more of a “performer” in front of the lens. Herzog can do both, lead us through his documentaries as a guide and companion through the darkness; Brügger is more of a showman, often stealing focus that rightfully isn’t his resulting in an interruption of your viewing flow.
If you cut out a few of Brügger’s indulgences the story would unweave with breakneck believability and WTF moments. As we get it, however, it’s still enormously engaging and disrupts your preconceived notions about the way the world works. At its best moments the film plays like Oliver Stone’s JFK without the stylization and exaggeration. Each new development is, more often than not, so wild and out-there that you wouldn’t believe it if you saw it in a fictional movie. But their explanation and thoughtful deconstruction – Brügger may take a bit longer to arrive at a point but he does so thoroughly and with moderate prejudice – chill your nerves in a way that makes it all feel pretty downright believable.
There’s strong evidence for this tale to be true but Cold Case Hammarskjöld wisely acknowledges that most mysteries will always remain a mystery. The path of destruction from one man’s seat in an aircraft to the attempted genocide of an entire race leaves deep thoughts and a few paranoid analyses that linger.