Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld

by Andrew Parker

Cold Case Hammarskjöld, the latest feature film from provocative and frequently sarcastic Danish documentarian and investigative journalist Mads Brügger positions itself as a work about the nature of conspiracy theories, but really it’s just an indulgently long walk to get to an only moderately unpredictable punchline. Brügger loves to play with his audience and subject’s expectations of him in films like The Ambassador and The Red Chapel, offering up elaborate Sacha Baron Cohen styled performances in service of getting closer to unseen or frequently suppressed truths, and Cold Case Hammarskjöld is certainly within the filmmaker’s journalistic wheelhouse. But unlike his previous films, Brügger’s indulging of his own stylistic fetishes proves to be a major stumbling point, leading to a work that uneasily hangs between cynicism and sincerity.

For six years, Brügger, with the help of friend, private investigator, and conspiracy theorist aficionado Göran Bjorkdahl, has been looking into the mysterious (or possibly not so mysterious) 1961 death of former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Killed in a plane crash while flying over Rhodesia en route to Angola, Hammarskjöld, a fire brand idealist, was an outspoken defender of the sovereignty of emerging, independent African nations at the time. At the time of his death, Hammarskjöld was trying to broker a peace treaty between U.N. forces and the emerging nation of Katanga, which not too long before had seceded from the Congo and was the apple of the eye of a large mining concern. The plane crash was “officially” chalked up to pilot error, but something seemed amiss to many. There were reports of interference by paramilitary mercenaries and potentially the American C.I.A., mysteriously shut down runways, and Hammarskjöld’s body was carrying the ace of spades, a.k.a. “the death card.”

In terms of overall historical impact, the death of Hammarskjöld has been largely relegated to the footnotes, but the lingering questions over how everything went down are certainly tantalizing. Brügger freely admits at one point in his investigation that he wanted to make Cold Case Hammarskjöld because it was a relatively sexy story that sounded dangerous, and to some degree, like a plausible sort of conspiracy to believe in. There’s easily identifiably villains, corporations that could stand being brought down a few pegs, and political cover-ups aplenty. It also allows Brügger the chance to adopt some theatrical personas, like an all-white clad villain who looks like a drug dealer on safari or a hard nosed journalist delivering dictation to an assistant in a sweaty looking African hotel room. Much like Cohen taking the piss out of various Americans and Europeans, Brügger likes to push the buttons of everyone he comes into contact with along the way, but the Danish filmmaker’s style, cadence, and attitude is a lot more like a cross between Lars Von Trier and Werner Herzog. He’s playful, contemplative, and dangerous, but half the time the viewer is left wondering if Brügger actually cares about anything he’s covering and whether or not he’s simply trolling those that he finds inferior.

That sarcastically posed question of authorship is at the core of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, but it’s never examined in a satisfying way, because Brügger spends way too much time screwing around and indulging his own ideas instead of actually providing the viewer with much of the investigation. It’s hard to specifically explain just why Cold Case Hammarskjöld is so frustrating and grating without spoiling anything. A big reveal arrives about ninety minutes into Brügger’s unnecessarily bloated 129 minute running time, long after Brügger has sarcastically vamped his way through an increasingly complicated conspiracy that grows more contradictory and debunked as it goes along. Suffice to say, the big reveal at the heart of Cold Case Hammarskjöld is that the investigation has uncovered something even darker than they set out to uncover. That revelation means that the previous 90 minutes were all smoke and mirrors designed to please Brügger and no one else. It’s like being taken for a ride in a rigged card game for a very long time, only for the dealer to suddenly tell you that life or death stakes are suddenly involved and the game is wrapping up very soon.

Brügger admits as much, and starts talking about something far more serious and potentially still unprovable. What he wants to shine a light upon is admirable and important, but after wasting so much time on a tone that uneasily balances comedy with hard journalism, it’s hard to take Brügger and the remainder of the film all that seriously. Early into Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Brügger says that he’s examining either one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time or one of the most stupidly realized conspiracy theories ever concocted. While he’s smart enough to change course in the latter stages of Cold Case Hammarskjöld into more serious journalism, the fact that he can’t prove his own new theories strikes as odd. If this is some sort of mea culpa, why not try harder? Was it because he’s spent six years on this one story, and he wants to move on? Is that punchline that the viewer has been waiting an eternity for meant to be bittersweet and reflective or is it just another thing Brügger can take the piss out of? With his previous films, Brügger’s approach works, but here it doesn’t. Brügger will be one of the first to say that it doesn’t work, but his attempts to make amends are rather limp and simplistic.

Brügger is the type of talent that one either loves or hates, and while I didn’t mind The Ambassador or The Red Chapel, Cold Case Hammarskjöld looks and feels every bit like a misfire that started off with dubious intent and suddenly decided that it had to be sincere. It will lead to some viewers passing judgment on Brügger as a journalist, which is somewhat unfair. All of the problems apparent in Cold Case Hammarskjöld are the result of a filmmaker who lost control over their self-indulgent project; not because they didn’t do their due diligence. Cold Case Hammarskjöld is so coldly distant that it’s hard to tell whether or not Brügger learned anything from the experience, but I’m hoping that he did.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, and in Montreal on Friday, August 16, 2019. It expands to additional cities throughout the summer and fall.

Check out the trailer for Cold Case Hammarskjöld:

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