Thursday, August 15, 2019

film review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Directed by Mads Brügger

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

Cold Case Hammarskjöld asks, Did somebody murder United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld?

In 1961, African nations were shaking off their European colonial masters to be independent. Sweden's Dag Hammarskjöld backed their independence, but upset European governments and big mining corporations who were making money off the continent. One night, Hammarskjöld's airplane went down in northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) as Hammarskjöld was heading to attend cease-fire negotiations during the Congo Crisis. The official reason for the crash was pilot error, but Danish director Mads Brügger calls that a lie. His film explores the cause of the crash in a painstaking search that unspools like a murder mystery.

For six years, Brügger and Göran Björkdahl, whose father was a UN diplomat who visited the crash site sometime in the 1970s, have been hunting for the truth. Björkdahl's father was given a metal plate apaprently from the plane, but the plate is full holes. Bullet holes?

The duo interview black African witnesses at the crash site, whom investigators in 1961 ignored. Brügger and Björkdahl visit the airport where the plane crashed eight miles away in a ball of fire. Björkdahl reports that the air traffic controller mysteriously destroyed his initial conversation notes with the pilot and later rewrote them.

More damning is a contemporary interview of a retired American spy who was at a U.S. base in Cyprus where he heard an interecepted recording of a Belgian mercenary pilot saying he had spotted Hammarskjöl's plane, then shot it down. Also, the ace of spades Death Card was tucked into Hammarskjöl's body.

This is just the start of the film. Brügger takes us down the rabbit hole to SAIMR, the South African Maritime Research Institute, which is really an outfit for white mercenaries operating in Africa led by a shady fellow named Keith Maxwell. The film centers on Maxwell and SAIMR. As Brügger peels back the layers of SAIMR, he uncovers missions that SAIMR allegedly executed, namely spreading AIDS across Africa and murdering Dag Hammarskjöld.

The film grows darker and more unsettling until you're left feeling that somebody did kill
Hammarskjöld. However, this conclusion is no slam dunk. Maxwell's own memoirs are mixed with fiction, says the film, and one interview subject believes Maxwell went mad towards the end of this life. Also, spreading AIDS through vaccines is scientifically unlikely.

As in his past films, Brügger is the audience's on-camera guide through a complex story, but unlike, say, The Red Chapel, he doesn't play the prankster. Rather, Brügger plays a straight-laced detective digging for a dark truth.

The film's only structural misstep in the costant cutting-back to Brügger dictating to his African secretary--all the more confusing because he uses two different women to play the same role. True, these dialogues offer background information and access to Brügger's thoughts, but they also disturb the flow of the detective story and throw the viewer. 

Whether you believe the conspiracy theory or not, Cold Case Hammarskjöld is one chilling detective story.

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