Göran Björkdahl and Mads Brügger in Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019)

Playing like a first-rate thriller, COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD is an ambitious piece of work which makes for gripping viewing

3 out of 5 stars

They say that the truth is stranger than fiction yet Mads Brügger’s latest true-crime documentary COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD couldn’t get much stranger if it tried.

Best described as a documentary thriller, COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD follows Danish director Mads Brügger and Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdahl as they try to solve the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish economist and diplomat who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in 1961 whilst on route to negotiate a ceasefire in the Congo, yet while the crash was officially blamed on pilot error, foul play has long been suspected.

It is this story that forms the first half of Brügger’s two hour documentary as the Danish filmmaker and Björkdahl undertake research, interview eyewitnesses and at one point, even visit the scene of the crash with a shovel and a metal detector in an attempt to dig for evidence to prove that Hammarskjöld was murdered. But then the story takes a dramatic turn.

Göran Björkdahl and Mads Brügger Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Papers linked Hammarskjöld’s death identify a secret organisation called SAIMR run by a man named Keith Maxwell. As the pair delve into Maxwell’s past, they uncover an even more scandalous charge: a horrific plot to weaponize the AIDS virus and deliberately infect black South Africans with HIV, all in the guise of vaccinations.

Truthful or not, these discoveries make for gripping viewing with COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD playing out like a first-rate thriller. This slow-building documentary mystery sucks you in like a vortex, Brügger taking the audience down a rabbit hole of chilling plots, secret organisations and white-clothed villains, hinging on key issues of the Cold War and African decolonization.

Yet, this is also an incredibly complicated story, so much so that the filmmaker even makes reference to this in the documentary. Brugger deliberately keeps the viewer off-balance here by playing with and even joking with the fantastical elements of the tale. But as the plot spreads out wildly in all directions, the clues soon begin to cancel each other out and it becomes increasingly impossible to follow the thread of this globetrotting whodunit.

Göran Björkdahl and Mads Brügger in Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Brügger’s unique style of filming also doesn’t help matters. This is an ambitious piece of work, the Director juxtaposing archive footage and one-to-one interviews with bizarre scenes of himself in a hotel room, dictating information to one of two women and even, on certain occasions, even playing the ‘villain’ himself in dramatised scenes. Once again, this makes for interesting viewing but also makes it increasingly difficult to determine which parts of the story are true and which have been invented for dramatic purposes. With such a breadth of information to cover, you can’t help but feel that the film could have benefited from a bit less artifice and a bit more contextual information.

That said, can’t deny that COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD is a tremendously absorbing film and while the question of who killed Hammarskjöld or indeed whether SAIMR ever really existed is never really resolved, this truly disturbing case is one which will stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema.

COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 4 October 2019