Writer and Director: Mads Brügger
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
This quirky documentary about the suspicious death of Dag Hammarskjöld the Secretary General of the UN in 1961 might just be the most terrifying film of The London Film Festival this year. What starts as a tongue-in-cheek investigation into Hammarskjöld’s death soon turns into a story of secret militias and mass murder. This is an important film.
In Cold Case Hammarskjöld, documentarian Mads Brügger teams up with Göran Björkdahl, who was given by his father a sheet of metal supposedly belonging to the plane that crashed carrying Hammarskjöld on his way to The Congo. The metal appears to have bullet holes in it, suggesting that the Secretary General’s plane was brought down rather than crashed accidentally. The UN’s initial report into the crash was inconclusive but Brügger and Björkdahl go to Congo to interview people who witnessed the attack. Most claim to have seen two planes that day, and so suspicions arise that Hammarskjöld’s plane was shot down.
Adding more credibility to what some think is a conspiracy theory is the photograph of Hammarskjöld’s corpse being placed on a stretcher. Quite clearly, tucked into his collar is a playing card, the ace of spades, the calling card of secret agencies such as the CIA. Also, why is it that the bodies of the other passengers in the plane have been burnt in a fire, while Hammarskjöld’s body is relatively untouched? This cold case demands to be reopened.
But this is not a traditional documentary, and to begin with the film is difficult to follow with Brügger, dressed entirely in white, relating the story to two African secretaries who type up the events on an old fashioned typewriter. At first it seems as if this is going to be a meta-documentary, always conscious of its own form, but Brügger also wants to reveal the irreparable damage that colonialism has had on the whole of Africa. When Brügger and Björkdahl begin to dig for the plane’s wreckage, Brügger brings pith helmets for both of them to wear, in order that they are protected from the Congo sun, but they look like two colonials looking for gold.
It would be a shame to divulge the bigger scandals that the pair discover as they try to find out who killed Hammarskjöld, but they are horrific and it seems incredible that we don’t know of them already. Slowly, the reasons for the strange dictations are made clear, and finally they seem a sensible decision, simultaneously alienating the viewer and giving the viewer focus. The story is so complicated and sometimes outlandish that it needs these slightly comic breaks.
Brügger is an entertaining guide, a little pompous but arch, too, trapping his interviewees with, what at first seem, innocuous details. Because of this unique style he won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at this year’s Sundance for Cold Case Hammarskjöld. We can only hope that this film has a life after the festival season because its discoveries are chilling, and surely this ‘truth’ must out?
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October