Where were you when you first learned of the death of Dag Hammarskjöld? For some, it will be wherever they’re reading this review. But at the time, his mere existence was viewed by some as a threat to international accord: a diplomat who wanted to change the way Africa dealt with the rest of the world financially. Danish journalist and documentarian Mads Brügger concludes that had he lived, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations’ mandate that Africans live their lives in full independence would have put an end to the colonial chokehold. What he uncovered during the six-year journey to reach that conclusion will both shock and revulse viewers of his documentary thriller Cold Case Hammarskjöld.
Operating from inside the Congo’s Hotel Memling (the villain in the piece stayed there in 1965), Brügger tells both of the African women hired to take dictation that his undertaking is either the “world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.” (Why the need for two alternating secretaries? No spoilers here!) Typewritten, neatly-arranged Post-It’s line the wall above the work station. Brügger positions the yellow squares as chapter breaks, much in the way a screenwriter would while mapping out a structure.
Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on September 17, 1961 while travelling to negotiate a ceasefire in Katanga. Was there a conspiracy to kill him? His desire to protect African countries from falling prey to archaic thinking could have placed his name at the top of many an enemies list. According to Brügger, “If there ever was a time where members of the UN were longing for the death of the Secretary-General, it was during the reign of Dag Hammarskjöld.” The cause of the smash up was listed as pilot error, a “simple misreading of the altimeter.” The UN conducted an investigation, their findings hovering somewhere between pilot error and an attempt to bring the plane down. All of the passengers were burned to a crisp, save Hammarskjöld, whose remains were “remarkably undamaged.” (An unsinged Ace of Spades, aka the “death card,” was found tucked inside his shirt collar.) Conspiracy theories were immediate (and abiding). Not alone in his enterprise, Brügger is here joined by Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl, whose father was a UN diplomat when visiting the crash site in the ‘70s. Björkdahl found a slab of metal when moving his father into a nursing home: a bullet-stippled plate alleged to have come from Hammarskjöld’s plane. From that day forward, defrosting the cold case became an obsession.
Brügger could pass for “Mr. Mike” — SNL pioneer Michael O’Donoghue’s gruesome, yarn-spinning alter ego — were the latter tatted up and modeling an anachronistic Speidel I.D. bracelet (and skull and crossbones ring). He feels no affinity for his subject. Playing cards found at crime scenes and rumors of secret societies are Brügger’s raison d’etre, not “conducting enormous amounts of interviews with elderly, white, liver-spotted men.” He’s in it to monitor “the evil that white men do,” tracking Hitler-heiling mercenaries, members of a secret society whose black hearts were cloaked in navy white. A fishy organization, SAIMR (South African Institute for Maritime Research) plotted to use AIDS as a means of killing off the black population. They were the hired guns that contrived to permanently hammerlock Hammarskjöld.
A second viewing seems in order; the sheer volume of names and faces thrown our way can become a tad daunting at times. But as far afield as many of the subplots take us, Brügger never loses sight of his subject. In his own way, the ever-present director is as much a scene-hogger as Joaquin Phoenix with one glaring difference: Brügger’s mercenaries are the real-deal, not heavy-handed, makeup-streaked clowns with mommy and daddy issues.