At Sundance 2019, the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award went to Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld. The doc traces the murder of the then Secretary of the United Nations in 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld, through supposedly a plane crash. Did this actually happen or is this part of a conspiracy theory? The doc plays like a whodunit with lots of clues (actually too many that the story becomes confusing and long).
The doc does not open too impressively. Within the first 10 minutes, the doc jumps through half a dozen diverse places and times. The director Mads Brügger (THE RED CHAPEL, THE AMBASSADOR) is dressed in white apparel while in a hotel room dictating to his black secretary. The members of a clandestine organization SAIMR all dress in white. There is absolutely no reason for Mads Brügger to wear white except to step into character. But the fact emphasizes the director’s attention to detail, which is the sort of thing delivers of conspiracy theories get into.
Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger and his Swedish sidekick Göran Björkdahl investigate the mysterious 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld. As their search closes in, they discover a crime darker than they could have imagined. Hammarskjöld had sympathized with African nations that were forging independent identities – a stance that made him a lot of enemies among old colonial powers. When his plane went down in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Hammarskjöld was en route to cease-fire negotiations during the Congo Crisis. His body was found with the ace of spades
(the Death Card) tucked in his collar. For decades rumours have swirled around the cause of the crash. Was it murder? If so, who would benefit?
Brügger and Björkdahl spent six years travelling all over Europe and Africa, conducting interviews and roaming through archives. Their path led to stories of Belgian mercenaries, tales of evil men who dressed in white and rumours about a secret African society. Just as Brügger is
wondering if the film will have an ending, a brutal secret emerges, which thankfully enlivens the story which is beginning to descend into depths of boredom.
It is fascinating to watch how one man Brügger can go all out to search for clues like a sleuth in heat. Armed with two shovels and a metal detector, he and Björkdahl dig up the remains of the crashed plane. They also interview old people dug up from the archives who might have slight knowledge to contribute. They do not seem to get tired though the findings may be slow and meagre. This is a case where the search for the truth is more interesting that the truth itself.
The film is shot in many different languages – in English, French Bemba, Danish and Swedish. One cannot complain about the film’s attention to detail except for the fact that it become a little too much at times.