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If you’ve seen The Red Chapel or The Ambassador, you already know that a common reaction to the documentaries of Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger is, “I’m not really sure what I just watched.”
Brugger is a journalist and a fabulist, a provocateur and a comedian. He makes films that are categorized as nonfiction — and yet, if I walked out of the theater and you told me everything I’d seen had been staged and manipulated toward a desired conclusion, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
Cold Case Hammarskjold, Brugger’s latest documentary to get a Sundance premiere, may be his most difficult film to categorize, and his most accessible. It’s definitely Brugger’s most satisfyingly unsatisfying effort. A conspiracy-fueled murder mystery with some hilarious meta-commentary on the genre, Cold Case Hammarskjold is either a stunning piece of investigative reporting that builds to a revelatory climax or a wily trickster’s dark critique of the audience’s desperate need for answers.
The title refers to Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish economist who became Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953. In 1961, Hammarskjold died in an airplane crash in what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Almost immediately, rumors began building that Hammarskjold’s support of African self-determinism presented a threat to the continent’s long-standing colonialist powers and that the crash was no accident. There have been investigations, but none has yielded conclusive results.
Since 2011, Goran Bjorkdahl, a Swedish aid worker, has been conducting an investigation of his own, with Brugger joining him a couple years later.
Brugger’s fascination with the uncomfortable relationship between Africa and Europe was already the centerpiece of The Ambassador, but it’s easy to sense his doubts about this particular multination journey into the heart of darkness. Early on, he laments that Hammarskjold may be a figure who “only interests old people” and as he looks at the riddle he’s attempting to unravel, he admits, “It is a very complex story. Maybe too complicated.”
Some of the complication is self-inflicted. In fact, for the early portion of the film, it may be almost all self-inflicted. Filming on Cold Case Hammarskjold took place over six years, and Brugger thinks nothing of jumping around in time and African geography without letting us know what progress he and Bjorkdahl have made. Sometimes segments are very traditional, like the two men interviewing black Africans who were witnesses to Hammarskjold’s crash, noting that authorities at the time would never have treated those locals and their memories as worthy of acknowledging. Sometimes segments are a cheeky take-off on viable investigation, like when Brugger announces to Bjorkdahl that they’ll be digging for buried wreckage and lays out supplies that include woefully inadequate shovels, victory cigars and safari pith helmets for their pale Scandinavian skin.
Sometimes, though, he’s just messing around. A main framing conceit has Brugger, dressed in an all-white suit in a hotel associated with a main character in the story, narrating the structure of his film, chapter by chapter, to an African secretary who is played by two different actresses presumably to underline the artificiality of the genre. That’s if you don’t get that there are framing devices within framing devices and when speculation gets too outlandish, Brugger shifts to black-and-white animated sequences. When Brugger and Bjorkdahl’s mission takes them to South Africa and a long-deceased figure who may be part of a shady military-sponsored cabal, but was probably insane, and they discover that the suspect wrote a memoir, but that the memoir was fictionalized and may have been written at the peak of his faltering later years, and that memoir is treated with animated sequences of its own, you realize how far afield this has all gone from anything recognizably “true.”
On a purely literal level, Cold Case Hammarskjold is using absurdity to capture the very real challenges of cracking any cold case or getting to the truth at the heart of any conspiracy theory. It’s frustrating and dull work. If Brugger weren’t taking these odd stylistic leaps or giving us puckish conversations like when he and a Zambian cab driver named “Mass” go back and forth over whether they have the same name, the movie would just be two men without detective credentials working their way down one list of uncooperative suspects after another, each man denying the validity of the entire premise of the film. “Find out who killed President Kennedy. Do something important,” one reticent interviewee tells him, as you realize that might as well be what Brugger is trying to accomplish.
Yet there’s something exhilarating every time a phone call or spontaneous appearance at a stranger’s house produces a clue that pushes them forward. The case they’re investigating gets more and more grandiose and, conveniently, more and more connected to favorite Brugger themes about white European exploitation of Africa and the open cultural wounds that still exist today because of it, wounds that plausibly might have healed had Hammarskjold survived. The murder of a UN secretary-general is a big case to crack until you start putting it alongside apartheid, genocide in the Congo and the spread of AIDS. The micro levels of truth and reconciliation Brugger is seeking remain daunting throughout, even when he’s just examining his own fascination with this topic, but in macro, what Cold Case Hammarskjold wants to approach becomes huge.
Based on reactions from the audience after the film’s Sundance premiere, some people felt that despite a lack of actual, tangible presented evidence, Brugger and his film got to the root of something so massive that, if true, would position Cold Case Hammarskjold for global recognition. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t. Grand revelation or intellectual prank — if I knew for sure, it wouldn’t be a Mads Brugger film.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)
Production company: Wingman Media
Producers: Peter Engel, Andreas Rocksén, Bjarte M. Tveit
Director: Mads Brugger
Director of photography: Tore Vollan
Editor: Nicolas Norgaard Staffolani
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival