Danish filmmaker and provocateur Mads Brügger knows how to tell a compelling story, which is both the draw and the Achilles’ heel of his latest documentary, “Cold Case Hammarskjöld.”
Brügger starts out the film by trying to investigate the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second man to hold the title of secretary-general of the United Nations. Hammarskjöld was killed when his plane crashed on Sept. 18, 1961, near the city of Ndola in northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
Hammarskjöld was on a diplomatic mission to negotiate for peace in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to meet with Moise Tshombe, leader of the breakaway territory of Katanga. Tshombe was backed by Belgian mining interests who feared Congolese independence would threaten their lucrative business. That’s why some people believe there was an order to kill Hammarskjöld, who endorsed the African independence movements of the ’60s.
One who believes this is Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish private investigator who has made solving Hammarskjöld’s death his life’s work. Björkdahl’s main piece of evidence is a metal plate, which he believes came from Hammarskjöld’s DC-6, punctured with tiny holes. Brügger follows Björkdahl as he seeks to dig up the wreckage of that plane, which was bulldozed not long after the crash.
But when that particular well runs dry, Brügger has already jumped to the next thread. With Björkdahl’s aid, Brügger tries to find evidence of the existence of a shadowy mercenary group, the innocuous-sounding South African Institute for Marine Research (SAIMR), which they believe has been involved in black-ops jobs like the downing of Hammarskjölds plane.
Finding anyone willing to talk openly about SAIMR is difficult, but when one does come forward, Brügger thinks he’s hit the jackpot — especially when the guy implicates SAIMR in a crime even bigger, and more horrific, than the assassination of a top UN official.
This is where Brügger’s method catches him short. The accusation is a bombshell, certainly, but the proof is non-existent (which is why I’m not divulging it here). It is so big that it throws off the trajectory of the Hammarskjöld investigation. And because the evidence is scant, mentioning it in this movie throws Brügger’s other investigative work into question.
Brügger — who set himself up as a corrupt diplomat in his 2011 documentary, “The Ambassador” — deploys s narrative device in which he, dressed in the all-white colonialist garb favored by SAIMR recruits, dictates his story to two secretaries who type on a manual typewriter. The secretaries, both black African women, serve as sounding board and Greek chorus, as well as a visual representation of the uneven power dynamic that has defined Africa since Europeans first invaded the continent. Brügger plays with fire by using such imagery, and he knows it.
Still, it’s a good yarn Brügger relays in “Cold Case Hammarskjöld,” full of political intrigue and outlandish characters. Too bad he tells it in such a way that we’re in doubt about its truthfulness.
‘Cold Case Hammarskjöld’
Opened August 16 in select cities; opens Friday, August 30, at the Tower Theatre (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably R for language and descriptions of violence. Running time: 124 minutes; in English, and in Danish, Bemba, Swedish and French, with subtitles.