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Review: Cold Case Hammarskjöld

August 16, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Back in 1961, the United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who was openly fighting for the decolonization of Africa at the time, was killed in a plane crash in Northern Rhodsia, and the common belief was that it was a simple engine failure.

But for years an alternate theory has existed that the plane was deliberately shot down and Hammarskjöld was actually murdered, with the powers that be wanting to ensure they maintained control of the African continent.

This is what Danish journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger sets out to explore in his new documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld, a stunning and frequently shocking real life conspiracy thriller that is gripping throughout every minute of its over two hour running time.

The film follows Brügger as he sets out to gather evidence and interview those with knowledge of the over fifty year old case, including any remaining witnesses. Joining him is a man by the name of Göran Björkdahl, a Swedish private investigator whose late father left behind a bullet-riddled metal plate that he believes came from the crashed plane. Brügger’s narrative structure is fascinating, as he divides the film into chapters and also features scenes of himself in an African hotel room narrating the story to a pair of secretaries, who take turns transcribing his words on an old typewriter.

These dryly comic interludes almost resemble something out of a Wes Anderson movie both in their absurd nature and symmetrical framing, serving as an inventive narrative through line that keeps us fully engaged and entertained. These hotel room scenes also help us keep track of the many different story threads that emerge as Brügger and Björkdahl encounter a series of red herrings and dead ends, complete with the obligatory clues written on sticky notes decorating the wall.

In another amusing touch, Brügger and Björkdahl wear pith hats and bring garden spades with them that they plan to use to dig for evidence. This somewhat quirky approach fits the constantly shifting, at times shaggy dog nature of the story, which starts off as a mad, conspiratorial quest for answers that has an almost tongue-in-cheek feel to it. But as Brügger uncovers more details of the Hammarskjöld case, he is led down an even darker and more twisted path, and the truth that he starts to find ends up being quite disturbing, with far-reaching implications about the extent of white supremacist power.

I love documentaries like this that prove truth really is stranger than fiction, and I don’t want to say too much more, because it’s best to experience this film cold. All I will say is that the twisting, turning and ultimately shocking ride that Cold Case Hammarskjöld takes us on is one of the best experiences I have had at the movies all year, and it leaves us with the terrifying feeling that some conspiracies are actually much realer than we might want to believe.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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