Walking into COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD, audiences are likely to wonder exactly what the film is going to be about. Some, of an older or more politically minded nature, may connect it to the former Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld. Fewer will know of his death in a plane crash. As the director and writer of the piece, Mads Brügger openly acknowledges, who really cares about the death of Hammarskjöld?
Well, as it turns out, quite a lot of people…possibly. As part of their quest to discover if there was any foul play behind the death of Hammarskjöld, Mads and an investigator set out to establish the facts of the case, by visiting the scene of the crash, interviewing witnesses, and searching through archives. So far, the film could be described as a documentary, albeit an unconventional one, which has the director dictating his plan of the film to one of his secretaries. However, once the pair begin to dig into the causes of the crash, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. They enter a world of intrigue and deception, complete with its own SPECTRE-like organisation, with layer upon layer of contradiction and innuendo. Some of this is clearly demarked, with animated recreations of the events spoken of setting them apart from the concrete facts of the case. Yet, as the tale unfolds to ever more dramatic proportions, the provenance of the information within the live-action footage becomes more uncertain. The director is always keen to remind his audience of the film’s own self-awareness, as moments of darkness are interspersed with those that are faintly ludicrous. The amiability of Mads and Göran is such that you are prepared to be drawn into the tale being woven by them, despite how far-fetched some of it may seem.
Of course, given the intricacies of international espionage, the documentary trappings of COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD are at times stretched to their breaking point. Multiple dead ends are met, be it on grounds of national security or the lack of certain permissions, which puts a brake on much of the speculation that is made from the more grounded information they discover. Meanwhile, much of the third act of the film is reliant on the testimony of one individual, given the unwillingness of many potential subjects to come forward. While it seems plausible that the paramilitary organisation he claims to be part of, SAIMR, did exist at some point, many of the other details about it require further evidence to confirm them. Though Mads is open about the investigation’s shortcomings, this only serves to highlight that the narrative is framed entirely through his interpretation of the relatively limited information available, with the director frequently describing the content of an interview soundbite before it occurs. Whether or not, therefore, he can be regarded as an unreliable narrator rests with the audience themselves.
At the beginning of the film, the tale is described by the director as either “the world’s biggest murder mystery, or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.” While there’s no firm answer to be found by the time 128 minutes have rolled around, it is difficult to stop thinking about this film. It is probably all the better for it, as the intoxicating blend of fact and supposition gives life to a story that in other hands could be a much duller affair. There are more than enough twists and turns to keep any audience entertained, even if they know nothing about the eponymous Secretary-General. It may have some flaws, but the craft put into COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD, both as a documentary and a meta-fictional narrative, is such that they don’t really matter.