Movie Review: “Cold Case Hammarskjöld”

Appearing front and center in the documentary “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” is the film’s writer-director, Mads Brügger.  He tells the story via voiceover, he tells the story directly to those he’s working with, he—quite theatrically—injects himself into everything going on.  He wears costumes, makes jokes, and generally plays the role of provocateur.  It may be a little shticky, but it always feels as though it’s for a greater purpose.

That purpose?  To espouse an utterly wild conspiracy theory. Or maybe two conspiracy theories. It’s brilliantly fun even if it’s unabashedly weird.

Generally speaking, the film starts off as an investigation into the 1961 death of United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld.  This occurred when a plane in which Hammarskjöld was travelling crashed in Congo as it was approaching the runway for a landing.

As with any really good conspiracy theory, this one has talk of angry governments and bombs and backup plans and shadowy secret organizations with centuries of history and weird dress codes.  It is, and you’ll forgive me if this word lacks specificity or a sense of decorum, bonkers.  It is absolutely bonkers.  Completely and totally nuts.

Over the course of the two hours that the documentary unfolds, however, Brügger makes it work.  Check that, he more than makes it work.  One will not necessarily come out of the film believing the story, but it is all insanely entertaining.  Brügger keeps the audience utterly mesmerized as “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” flits back and forth from one hotel room to another, from one false start to another. There are pith helmets, Cuban cigars, and important subjects who refuse to be interviewed.

In short, it’s utterly wild.  I do not for a single minute believe that Brügger makes his case, but by the end of the movie it doesn’t seem terribly important the he does because he has been hugely successful in another endeavor – getting the audience interested, getting them involved.  Anyone watching the film will laugh and cheer for the man at the center of it all and will, undoubtedly, wonder if Brügger hasn’t in fact stumbled on something far more grand than he initially intended to discover.

Rereading the above, a lot of it sounds like sentences that are only changed in minor ways from the film’s official description, a description I did not read until after I had written those paragraphs.  Somehow this, too, feels like another of Brügger’s jokes, that somehow he has ensured that the film’s official description matches what anyone not wanting to give away the film’s secrets would write (and I desperately do not want to give away any of the secrets).

After watching “Cold Case Hammarskjöld,” I have no doubt that whether or not Brügger did this purposefully, that he is capable of doing it. The documentary is as much about style and panache as it is about substance and the man behind it seems, at times, a wizard.  It is a tale straight out of a spy novel and has enough threads connecting it to the real world that one actually stops and wonders if it all is indeed possibly true. Or, perhaps, they’re not threads connecting it to the real world, perhaps the threads are all connected to Brügger himself who, like a spider (okay, a wizard spider), exists at the center of the web with the real world stretched out beneath him.

“Cold Case Hammarskjöld” is a monumentally wonderful documentary, one that was year’s in the making, deals with an important bit of history, and makes any of the JFK conspiracy theories look completely sane.

four and a half stars

photo credit:  Magnolia Pictures

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