Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures releases the film on Friday, August 16.
For better or worse, the last few years have seen a sizable influx of twist-dependent documentaries: Non-fiction odysseys that start as one thing and then — due to an ominous circumstance of some kind — suddenly veer in an unexpected new direction, these films tend to dig their own rabbit holes and then gain narrative traction from the gravity of plummeting down them. Looking at the success of recent examples like “Catfish,” “Tickled,” and even last year’s “Three Identical Strangers” (which might be a bit less coy about its big reveal), it seems that “WTF!” has become an increasingly desirable reaction in a culture that fears and fetishizes spoilers in equal measure.
“Cold Case Hammarskjöld” is far and away the best and most shocking of these films. It’s the only one in which the big “twist” (or slow, escalating series of twists) has genuine real-world implications that stretch beyond the story at hand, and the only one in which the suspense grows so intense that — if a projector malfunctions at a certain moment towards the end of the movie — audiences may actually be incapable of returning to their regular lives without knowing what comes next. All the same, this epic swan dive into the darkest abyss of recent African history is also the longest, most circuitous, and glib film of its kind, though director Mads Brügger semi-convincingly tries to argue that he couldn’t tell this story in any other way.
So here’s what we know: In 1961, United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld died when his plane crashed in an isolated field shortly before it was scheduled to land in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Hammarskjöld, a fierce proponent of returning power to the various African peoples, had been on his way to negotiate a cease-fire between UN forces and the secessionist Republic of Katanga, a breakaway state that would eventually be dissolved two years later. Of the 16 victims who perished in the crash, Hammarskjöld’s body was the only one that was found intact — there was an ace of spades tucked into the lapel of his shirt. Some people were immediately suspicious of foul play. The day after the crash, former U.S. President Harry Truman said that Hammarskjöld “was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him.’”
Rumors have percolated ever since that the secretary-general was killed by a foreign spy agency and/or a mercenary working for a large mining company that couldn’t afford an independent Congo, but there has never been any conclusive evidence one way or the other. Hammarskjöld’s name was unexpectedly cited by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late ’90s when the group assembled to identify the victims of apartheid and found documents suggesting that the CIA had wanted to eliminate the late statesman, but nothing much ever came of that; some questioned if the documents were even real.
Enter Mads Brügger, a Danish shit-stirrer whose impish documentaries tend to expose political and humanitarian crises through a well-calibrated mix of comedy, fearlessness, and personal humiliation. 2009’s “The Red Chapel,” for example, followed the filmmaker as he and two comedians posed as a theatre troupe on a (ridiculously dangerous) trip to North Korea so that they would be allowed to capture the absurdity — and the cruelty — of life inside the hermit kingdom. Imagine a deadpan cross between Michael Moore, Johnny Knoxville, and Lars von Trier and you’ll have the right idea.
Six years ago, inspired (and eventually joined) by a Swedish aid worker named Göran Björkdahl who believes that Hammarskjöld was murdered, Brügger decided that he would be the guy to solve this almost 60-year-old mystery once and for all. Not because he gave a damn about a semi-forgotten footnote of diplomatic history, or had a vested interest in the civil disputes that raged across the Congo a decade before he was born, but rather because the conspiracy theories that have cropped up around Hammarskjöld’s corpse allowed Brügger to follow all of his favorite things: secret paramilitary death squads, cultish agendas, real-life Bond villains. At one point, dressed in a full safari costume, the filmmaker is casually given permission to dig up the wreckage of Hammarskjöld’s plane; no one has ever been so giddy to hold a metal detector.
If “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” resolves as Brügger’s most rewarding film, it appears to reach that point almost by accident. His usual methods achieve most unusual results, as he digs into the facts with the wry amusement of someone who doesn’t expect to find anything. Both he and Björkdahl remain stone-faced from start to finish, but there’s never any doubt that Brügger is always trying to force back a smile. When the documentary opens, its director is sitting in a Congolese hotel room and dictating his research to an attractive local assistant who plunks out his notes on an old typewriter. Why? Why not. Who doesn’t want to feel like they’re Hercule Poirot on a particularly exciting case? Brügger is dressed in white because, his voiceover narration informs us, “the villain of this story only wore white.” The identity of that villain will remain a mystery for a long while, but this tangled narrative remains taut enough to hold your attention. There’s always another theory to unpack, and another witness to interview. In hindsight, the film is like a drive from Boston to New York by way of Florida, but the devil is in the detours.
At a certain point, as the clues accumulate, cancel each other out, and basically make it impossible to follow the thread of this globetrotting whodunnit, Brügger cops to his own foibles as an investigative journalist. Whether somewhat genuine or purely performative, his self-doubt becomes its own kind of spectacle, as the filmmaker starts to reckon with the idea that this may have been an enormous waste of time; it’s rare to see a documentarian grapple with the feeling that they won’t be able to salvage a worthwhile film from the years of footage they’ve shot along the way.
For Brügger, that crisis is further complicated by the sense that it’s largely of his own making — that his funny, persona-driven approach may have been too glib for a story that touches on grave and ghoulish matters like genocide, institutionalized white supremacy, and a “doctor” who deliberately infected black South Africans with AIDS under the guise of offering them cheap vaccines. At the start of the film, Brügger says that this will either be “the world’s biggest murder-mystery, or the world’s most idiotic murder-mystery,” and there’s a moment some 90 minutes later where it seems that he’s settled on the latter.
And then, of course, the seas part and he finds a direct path to the shattering revelation that Africa might be unrecognizably prosperous today if not for Hammarskjöld’s death. Modern viewers might be too skeptical and film-literate to believe that Brügger was really that close to giving up before that ultimate breakthrough, but the historical implications of his findings make for a wild finale regardless of how he got there. Likewise, the film offers no compelling reason to accept the insinuation that the mordant, winking style of Brügger’s journey was somehow essential to his destination. But there’s no denying that “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” makes it easy to digest a truly disturbing story. The truth is often stranger than fiction, but when the truth is a convoluted story of parapsychology, death cults, and mercenaries with mysterious code names like “Congo Red” — when it sounds more like the plot of a “Metal Gear Solid” game than it does the stuff of real political history — perhaps it takes a strange angle to see it clearly.
“Cold Case Hammarskjöld” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.