Movies

An Acclaimed New Documentary Uses a Possible Murder as a Postmodern Playground

Cold Case Hammarskjöld turns one of the Cold War’s biggest mysteries into an excuse for indulging wild conspiracy theories.

Mads Brügger and Göran Björkdahl standing in a field wearing white helmets. Brügger is wielding what looks like a metal detector, and Björkdahl leans on a shovel.
Mads Brügger and Göran Björkdahl in Cold Case Hammarskjöld.
Photo by Tore Vollan. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Among the threads followed by Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld are the stories of a Belgian mercenary pilot known as the Lone Ranger, a secret society of white-clad South African paramilitaries, horrifying medical experimentation carried out in what one witness describes as a “proper freaky scientists lab,” a mysterious American spy whose interests include “parapsychology and rock ’n’ roll,” and a vast conspiracy to spread the AIDS virus across the African continent. These come at the viewer so quickly, sometimes with so little follow-up, that it’s easy to lose track of how this is all connected to the film’s ostensible topic: the mystery of who (if anyone) killed United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961. “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory. If the latter is the case, I am very sorry,” Brügger admits to viewers at the beginning of the film—a prize winner for best documentary directing at Sundance. The problem is that it’s a little bit of both.

Brügger also freely admits that he sees Hammarskjöld himself—a figure that “only old people remember”—as merely “a ticket to the things I really enjoy,” the sort of gonzo journey through Africa’s political weirdness that the Danish director last took in 2011’s The Ambassador. But still, Hammarskjöld’s story is worth at least briefly reviewing. The Swedish diplomat became the U.N.’s second secretary-general in 1953 and quickly cast himself as an ally of newly independent African states against their former colonial powers. In 1961, the U.N. dispatched a peacekeeping force to support the Congolese government, which was fighting a separatist movement in the mineral-rich southern region of Katanga that had support from Belgian mining interests. On Sept. 18, Hammarskjöld’s plane was en route to meet for negotiations with the Katangese leader when his plane crashed, killing everyone on board, near Ndola in Northern Rhodesia—now Zambia. The crash was initially ruled the result of pilot error by local authorities, but suspicion that Hammarskjöld was assassinated has persisted ever since. In recent years, new information—including the testimony of former U.S. National Security Agency officers who claim to have overheard chatter about the plane being shot down—has stoked renewed interest in the case, and a U.N.-commissioned investigation is due to release its findings this fall.

Brügger’s film focuses on one particular theory involving a shadowy group, known as the South African Institute for Maritime Research, with alleged links to British intelligence and the CIA. Documents suggesting a link between SAIMR and Hammarskjöld’s death were uncovered by South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998, though the U.N. inquiry has dismissed the theory as impossible to verify. The British and American governments have consistently denied involvement.

Brügger makes it seem as if he’s the first one to pursue this angle in depth, though some cursory Googling will reveal that it was discussed in British researcher Susan Williams’ 2014 book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. Though Williams is frequently quoted in news coverage of the South African theory of Hammarskjöld’s death, she is oddly not mentioned in the film.

Halfway through the film, Brügger informs us that this was not the movie he initially intended to make. That would have been a murder mystery focused on the quest of Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish private investigator and foreign aid worker with a family connection to the tragedy, whose research helped rekindle interest in the case. But after six years of reporting, the two hit a dead end, and one of Björkdahl’s key pieces of material evidence turns out to be less significant than it appears.

So instead, Brügger heads to South Africa to dig deeper into the story of SAIMR, where things get very weird. The “184-year-old group first formed by a group of British mariners,” as Brügger describes them, was led by a man named Keith Maxwell. Maxwell, who referred to himself as “the commodore,” dressed all in white when he wasn’t in 18th-century naval regalia, and he was either a quack doctor with delusions of grandeur or a powerful mercenary working on behalf of the apartheid regime to maintain white supremacy on the African continent. There are a lot of red flags in this section. Interviewees’ testimonies are contradictory and hazy, and some definitely seem to be trying to tell the overenthusiastic Brügger what he wants to hear. (A typical exchange: “Could that bearded guy be the agent known as Congo Red?” “Yeah, I would say 80 percent. Probably that would be Congo Red.”) One American operative is dubiously remembered as having worked for “NCIS.” Much of the information about SAIMR comes from Maxwell’s own partly fictionalized memoir—reenacted with animations in the film—which one interviewee describes as the “rantings of a person who is losing his mind.”

And then there’s the film’s most explosive allegation, made by a self-described former SAIMR member, that the group had engineered vaccination campaigns to deliberately spread HIV in several African countries in order to kill black people. Brügger doesn’t endorse this theory, which is presented without documentation or evidence and has been met with heavy skepticism by experts, but he doesn’t quite dismiss it either.

Brügger, who resembles a chain-smoking, Scandinavian Moby, is on screen for nearly the entirety of the film and makes a few odd aesthetic choices, including framing scenes where he paces and monologues in hotel rooms dressed all in white—in tribute to Maxwell—with two different skeptical secretaries taking dictation on manual typewriters. Clearly aware of white-man-on-the-dark-continent clichés, he leans into them to the point of self-parody: While attempting to dig up Hammarskjöld’s plane, he and Björkdahl don colonial-style safari helmets “to protect our Scandinavian skin.”

All this makes it a little hard to tell just how seriously we’re supposed to be taking what we’re watching. That’s frustrating because it’s not entirely ridiculous to think we still haven’t gotten the full story of Hammarskjöld’s death. After all, the crash happened less than a year after the killing of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, with—as declassified documents later revealed—at least some level of involvement by the CIA. And South African mercenaries have certainly been involved in a variety of conflicts and shady enterprises across the continent. A U.N. investigator has also faulted the British and South African governments for being less than cooperative. Brügger does present a compelling case about the identity of a Belgian mercenary pilot who claimed to have been the one to shoot down Hammarskjöld’s plane—though it’s also clear that he wasn’t the only one making that claim.

At his best, Brügger has some resemblance to Serial’s Sarah Koenig in his willingness to share the dead ends and red herrings of his investigation with the audience, or the British author and filmmaker Jon Ronson, who was willing to take judgment-free journeys down conspiratorial rabbit holes in Them and The Men Who Stare at Goats. At his worst, he seems to be throwing off any responsibility for what he’s presenting by freely admitting that it’s impossible to tell the facts of the story from the rampant bullshit.

In another era, the film’s postmodern affectations might have been more entertaining, but in the current era, the enterprise feels a little more sinister. Cold Case Hammarskjöld will be released in theaters in the United States on Friday a week after the president took it upon himself to retweet some of the wildest conspiracy theories about the (admittedly suspicious) death of Jeffrey Epstein. Dropping a film that muddies the water about a criminal investigation, while an actual investigation is ongoing, feels irresponsible. Reinforcing the notion that journalists—as Brügger describes himself—are more interested in a wild story than the truth, is unproductive. And giving a platform to a conspiracy theory involving vaccinations is irresponsible. Of all the new questions raised by this film, the hardest to answer may be “What was the point?”