Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a documentary on the still unsolved murder of UN General Secretary Dag Hammar. Premiering at the London Film Festival this weekend, the film is Danish director Mads Brügger’s latest work.
Forget about wildlife and the manufacture of cheese in northern Suffolk. Great documentaries are striking back, demanding your full attention as they walk you hand in hand through the intricacies of one of the easiest-to-forget and most appalling murder mysteries of the last century. So whether you are undercover CIA agents or conspiracy theory geeks, Cold Case Hammarskjöld is the perfect treat for a groovy Saturday night; all the others might as well benefit from the inconvenient truths that Mads Brügger’s film exposes. And beware: it is entertaining as hell.
Because Cold Case Hammarskjöld aspires to be something more than an arid summary of facts about something very, very bad that happened a long time ago – to be precise, in 1961. Not only does it provide us with all the historical trivia about the death of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld, who was killed in an airplane crash while flying over former Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Not only does it combine images from exotic abodes with the neat perfection of well-off, white households thriving at the very heart of underdeveloped Third World countries. Cold Case Hammarskjöld is a meta-documentary which looks like a feature film: a Russian doll of historical evidence arranged just like the perfect Hollywood crime movie.
So Mr. Brügger might not be wrong in choosing to set off from the apparently simplest of questions: can I trust what the witnesses are telling me? Who is the culprit? How am I supposed to show this to an audience? Ultimately, what should not be taken for granted are documentaries themselves, with all their silky smoothness and matter-of-factness. The quest for authentic truth is a hard and tricky one, and that is why the director and his fellow investigator Göran Björkdahl, who was previously working on the case, do not wish to hide anything from us, turning the film into a psychological study of human motives for action.
So, first of all: why should we make a documentary out of this material? This ever so much detached gaze opens itself up to the underlying background emotion only when it overlaps with the puzzled eyes of two typewriters who are meant to give voice to the thoughts of the spectators themselves. Apart from that, no one ever judges “the facts”. The events are simply laid bare for everyone to consult. As Socrates loved to remark, the quest for knowledge is a highly personal one.
It is up to us to find our way out of the labyrinth of political, colonial and economical undertones of the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjöld. Only for us to try and see clearly under the perfectly photographed glassy skies of southern Africa and through the foggy layers of time gone by. Documentaries may not usually resort to that which in narrative cinema is commonly known as image composition and depth of field, and this film might simply be restating the obvious while it whispers into our ears that it is us who should actively draw the greater picture. Keep in mind, though: in a few years’ time, all the witnesses to this cold case will be six feet under, and they will bring the memory of Hammarskjöld with them. We must take a stance, and we must take it now.
Therefore, let the soothing music charm you into a totally unbelievable, dreadfully real waking nightmare. And if you really cannot see the point in disrupting your lives with visions of ghosts made of flesh, at least you will have spent a highly enjoyable couple of hours laughing your heart out at the expense of funny individuals dressed in white mariners’ clothes. So press play and enjoy the view of two Scandinavian men who definitely have a hard time trying not to get sunburnt while digging up the skeleton of the airplane which crashed on a sad day in 1961, taking down with itself Dag Hammarskjöld and his dreams of a pacified Africa.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019. It is competing for the Grieson Award for Best Documentary at the London Film Festival, where it will be screened this weekend: click here to find out more on the BFI’s website.