The vast majority of conspiracy theories have one key thing in common: Investigate them, and they turn out not to be true. But that doesn’t mean all of them aren’t true. “Cold Case Hammerskjöld” is a slow-building documentary mystery that sucks you in like a vortex. It offers several intertwined conspiracy theories, at least one of which, by the sternest reckoning, appears to be grounded in reality. Does that mean everything in the film is true? Maybe not. Yet “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” is a singular experience that counts as one of the most honestly disturbing and provocative nonfiction films in years.
Directed by the Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger, it starts out as an offbeat journalistic inquiry into the 1961 plane-crash death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary-general of the United Nations. Reviving old claims that have dogged the case but have never been proved, the film suggests that the crash was, in fact, engineered — that Hammarskjöld was murdered. Even if you’re young enough that his name strikes nothing but a distant chord, it’s a scary, bracing notion that gets its hooks in you. It makes you think: Could it possibly be true? And, if so, who could have been behind such an act, and why?
“Cold Case Hammarskjöld” sucks us in, but in a circling idiosyncratic way that only fuels its intrigue. Brügger — bald, twinkly, and a tad officious, like the young Donald Pleasance — first appears in a hotel room dressed in a white safari uniform. He tells us that the villain of his story is, yes, a man in a white safari uniform, and that there’s only one photograph of him in existence. (He shows us the photo.) Brügger, a filmmaker with a prankish reputation but, in this case, a deadly serious agenda, may be toying with the audience, but we go with him, because he seems to be in earnest, and he plants the seeds of a criminal enigma that turns out to have shockingly far-reaching implications.
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Dag Hammarskjöld was a Swedish economist and diplomat who, in 1953, become the UN secretary-general, a post he held until his death. He had, as Brügger says, the look and aura of a dull Swedish bureaucrat, and many of the UN powers hoped he would be just that; they did not look favorably upon a secretary-general with pointed leanings. But Hammarskjöld turned out to be something of an activist, especially when it came to the African nations that were struggling to free themselves from the yoke of colonialism and forge independent identities.
When Hammarskjöld died, he was on his way to Congo to oversee cease-fire negotiations in the ongoing crisis there. Several background forces were vying for power in Congo, including the Soviet Union and Belgium, Congo’s former colonizer, whose largest mining company was intent on maintaining control of the country’s wealthy mineral resources.
Brügger takes us back to the night of Sept. 18, 1961, when Hammarskjöld’s small plane went down in a field in Zambia, eight miles from the Ndola airport. He tells us that investigators, at the time, dismissed statements by locals who were near the crash when it happened. So Brügger goes back and talks to them, and one after another, in a way that seems guilelessly casual and convincing, they all mention the same things: the sighting of a second plane, a red flash, a shot-like sound.
He also interviews a witness of significant authority: Charles Southall, a former top official in the U.S. National Security Agency, who in 1961 was working at an NSA listening station in Cyprus. Southall heard a recording of the pilot referencing a second plane, and also heard gunfire. Brügger then presents a photograph of consummate creepiness. It shows Dag Hammarskjöld’s bloodied corpse at the crash site, and wedged into his collar is a playing card: the ace of spades. What could this mean? It means something, and when we find out what it’s a true suck-in-your-breath “Whoa!” of an epiphany.
Brügger, lifting tricks from Nick Broomfield and Werner Herzog, knows just how to inhabit the role he’s playing: the cultivated European muckraker as teasing showman. He gathers equipment (a metal detector, two shovels) and heads for the spot where the wreckage from Hammarskjöld’s plane was buried. We think: Is he going to dig up a smoking gun? In a way, he’s still playing us, at once exploiting and tweaking our desire to see a puzzle in which every piece fits perfectly. “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” doesn’t provide that. Yet the film does convince you that the death of Dag Hammarskjöld was, in all likelihood, an assassination, a revelation that becomes the entry point into a larger looking glass.
A key clue emerges from an unexpected place: South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which unveiled, but did not investigate, a tell-tale document from an organization called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR). It’s a mercenary group that worked hand in glove with the Apartheid regime, and the document contains what one witness describes as “the manuscript for killing Dag Hammarskjöld.” Brügger, who effectively communicates that he’s discovering this evidence right along with us, then pursues the hidden agenda of SAIMR. Its founder and leader? Keith Maxwell, the man in the safari uniform. He was a trainer of mercenaries and a devout white supremacist; he was also a little nuts. (He liked to dress in 19th-century naval regalia and wrote screw-loose diaries.) And what he was up to, according to the movie, was big. Nothing less than a way to reshape the world on racist grounds.
In the three days since “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” premiered at Sundance, its key claim — which has to do with the spread of AIDS in Africa — has been investigated by several journalistic organizations, notably The New York Times. The Times story that appeared on Jan. 27 debunks a number of the implications of Brügger’s film. I saw the movie several weeks ago (it was pre-screened for critics before Sundance), but have waited to write about it until some of this follow-up information could get out there. My initial experience of watching “Cold Case” was of falling into the seductive quicksand that a conspiracy theory can create. When I saw the movie, I bought the claims Brügger was making. I now believe The New York Times more.
That said, Brügger presents an extensive interview with Alexander Jones, a former SAIMR militia member who makes the shocking claims that “Cold Case” leaves us with. And what was haunting when I first saw the film, and remains haunting, is the intent that Brügger captures. This is what a contingent of people in South Africa, allied with the government, at least wanted to do. And that’s eminently believable. And it chills us. “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” doesn’t offer the last word about the issues it raises. But it’s a movie that should be seen, grappled with, argued with, and experienced, because the questions it plants in us are dark enough to reverberate as powerfully as answers.