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Thread: COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD (Mads Brügger 2019)

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    Jul 2002
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    COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD (Mads Brügger 2019)



    Heating up a cold case

    In September 1962 Dag Hammarsjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations, died in a plane crash in Africa. The circumstances were suspicious. He was believed to have been assassinated. Former President Truman was sure of it. There was an investigation, but it was fruitless. Now over half a century later, the bold, sometimes tongue-in-cheek Danish documentary filmmaker Mads Brügger reveals his six-year investigation of this "cold case" of the presumed murder of Dag Hammarsjöld.

    In his Indiewire review Dave Erlich calls this a "wild doc" and also "far and away the best and most shocking" of Brûgger's films. These include (the two I've seen: there is one other) his 2009 Red Chapel about a risky trip into the closed world of North Korea posing as a goofy theatrical act on a cultural mission, and his 2011 The Ambassador, in which he films his effort to assume a fake identity as a diplomat to deal blood diamonds in Africa, or to show he could do that. (Both these films I reviewed at successive Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films events, in 2010 and 2012).

    These three films all show Brügger's pechant for danger and provocation and all of them prominently feature him. He's a risk-taker and a showoff who's been called a mixture of Michael Moore and Borat. Erlich calls him "a deadpan cross between Michael Moore, Johnny Knoxville, and Lars von Trier." The latter has some further relevance: Brügger's films have received financing from von Trier. The personality and the Danish-English voice link them all, but they're different. Red Chapel is an infiltration. The Ambassador is an impersonation. Cold Case Hammarskjöld is an investigation.

    There is a certain doggedness that links them all, which is not their most endearing characteristic. In Red Chapel I was impressed by the risk, and the long unguarded look at North Korea's calculated fakery, as we observe the façade they put up and the reality behind it secretly filmed by Brügger. This is an amusing film, a bold one, and a revealing one. The Ambassador shows Brügger getting fake papers and donning fancy outfits. He seems to be preening, showing off. He appears to be more showing what he might be able to do than actually doing anything significant.

    In Cold Case Hammarskjöld he is not so much a performance artist and more a real investigative journalist - though whether he is unearthing new information, most of the way, seems unclear. He seems to be making fun of the obsessiveness of the investigator and his ability to get lost in a sea of details. There is a lot of unnecessary display going on here that slows things down and at times hovers between the compulsively fascinating and the boring. A lot of repetitious footage is devoted to Brügger himself sitting in a hotel room, dressed in white (supposedly significant since he claims the perpetrator of Hammarskjöld's murder - so he knows who he was! - always dressed that way), talking about the case, going over his findings, and dictating statements about it to two unidentified black African women who type or mostly just discuss them. This fleetingly presents a black point of view on events. Mainly it is just a ritual concocted for the film because it appeals to him. All of his films seem created above all for his own amusement. But that is part of their charm. In these scenes with the typist he plays with the sense that he's losing his way and may have gotten nowhere - only to make some concrete discoveries seem more dramatic at the end. Ultimately these seemingly tedious scenes in the hotel room with the typist turn out to be a successful way Brüger has devised of dramatizing his creative and organizational, processes.

    The director is joined early on by a Norwegian aid worker, Göran Björkdahl, who believes Hammerskjöld was assassinated and has been investigating himself. Together they unearth a number of threads, but they tend to cancel each other out. That's why the scenes with the typist help: they provide the illusion of a common thread as well as dramatizing Brügger's narration. But they still can seem rather static: does this film have to be quite so long?

    Björkdahl and Brügger get permission to dig up the remains of the plane crash, buried and grown over with grass. This is a laborious process, but yields nothing.

    For quite a while largely forgetting the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, Brüggers takes on a lengthy, meandering trip down a rabbit hole pursuing a lot of stuff that death leads him to, about evil men plotting to exterminate the black populations of Africa by spreading the AIDS virus, and about a clandestine South African organization of white suprematist mercenaries called SAIMR (South African Institute for Maritime Research) who were busily undermining nascent African governments through targeted killings and may have been assigned to kill the UN chief with CIA collusion, or at least may have been somehow involved. As Brüggers mentions in passing, the existence of SAIMR became public knowledge in 1998, before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa: it's not Brügger's discovery. But through finding about SAIMR's ultimately crazy "commodore," a former SAIMR operative who seems to know a lot, and actual documents from the "commodore's" own hand lead to the heart of a conspiracy, something that provides a long-delayed revelation that takes us back to the original question: whodunit?

    Somewhat more vaguely than one would wish, the overall picture also emerges that energy czars and big businessmen linked with white ex-colonialist superpowers were secretly at war with the young African nations - and that Hammarskjöld was perhaps those nations' greatest champion. Brügger's key source says that if the UN chief had lived, Africa would be a very different world today. Perhaps; perhaps not. But this is thought-provoking and points to the motives behind his putative assassination. At the end of Brügger's new film, the "cold case" of Dag Hammarskjöld has been heated up, and his death is a little less of a mystery. The full answer requies more than two Scandinavians with shovels and a metal detector, but Mads Brügger proves not only an eccentric documentarian but a brilliant investigator.

    Cold Case Hammarskjöld, 128 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2019, wwinner of the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award; 44 subsequent domestic and international festival showings of this film are listed on IMDb. US theatrical release Aug. 16, 2019. Metascore was an unblemished rave: 88%. It has now dropped to 74%. Also VOD.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-19-2019 at 02:21 PM.


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