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Cold Case Hammarskjöld’s Artful Paranoia

How do you investigate a vast international intrigue in a culture that is overloaded with conspiracy theories?

Tore Vollan / Magnolia Pictures

I have always thought of conspiracy theories—whether spawned by the assassination of JFK, the death of Marilyn Monroe, or more recently, the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein in his Manhattan jail cell—as an easy, somewhat credulous intellectual refuge, a way of trying to fit the pieces of a jagged and perplexing reality into a smooth and coherent whole. They are an effort, really, to ascribe a linear causality to what may in fact be a scattered, multi-determined event. My theory about conspiracy theories, however, took a recent turn for the more tenuous after watching the astonishing and bone-chilling Cold Case Hammarskjöld, a new documentary directed by the Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger.

On the face of it, it is hard to imagine that a film based on excavating the circumstances surrounding the half-century-old plane crash that killed UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, on September 18, 1961, could make for edge-of-your-seat suspense. But it is the particular talent of Brügger, whom one critic has described as “Werner Herzog hopped up on cold brew and Sudafed,” to extract a kind of thrilling drama from seeming dead ends and road blocks. 

The film took more than six years to make, and features an independent Swedish investigator named Göran Björkdahl as Brügger’s partner in crime-solving. As if taking his cue from Nick Broomfield—the British director known for his ubiquitous, sometimes intrusive presence in documentaries about such unsavory figures as Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood madam, and Aileen Wuornos, the Florida-based serial killer—a bald, nerdy-looking man in his late forties who sports wire-rimmed glasses and a reddish beard is present in every frame of the film. He self-consciously inhabits several roles at once: that of cunning director, intrepid journalist and amusingly self-doubting narrator.

When Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed, he was on his way to the newly independent Republic of the Congo to try to negotiate a truce with Moïse Tshombe, the leader of a rebel faction. The crash occurred near Ndola, Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), and immediately aroused suspicions of sabotage. Hammarskjöld had earned the enmity of the leaders of Belgium, France, and Great Britain, among other colonial powers, for his impassioned defense of the sovereign rights of African nations. He had come to be seen as a threat to the Western countries that had a financial stake in the Congo’s mineral riches, which included gold, diamonds, and uranium. At a speech at the UN, Hammarskjöld described the Congo as “a happy hunting ground for national interests” and called for an end to such material exploitation; corporate interests, as always, had the most to lose. As Alexander Jones, who later becomes the star witness for the prosecution, says: “Dag Hammarskjöld wanted every country for the people of that country.”

From the start, Brügger, who is something of a genial prankster, sets up the account of Hammarskjöld’s death as either “the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.” One of the fascinations of the film is that both possibilities remain in play for most of it. And, even if one is not entirely persuaded by every conclusion drawn by the film, it raises enough questions to make the viewer unsure where a dark reality ends and a wildly speculative scenario begins. Given our current misinformation-riddled culture, with its immersion in Trumpian doublespeak, Cold Case resonates in an eerie fashion well beyond its immediate orbit.

Brügger and Björkdahl, who collaborated on the investigation, at first focus on the crash itself, making use of eyewitness testimony that was disregarded at the time (mainly because it came from black townspeople) and of a hole-riddled piece of metal in Björkdahl’s possession, assumed to have been taken from the wreckage of the plane. They manage to establish, or at the very least credibly suggest, that the plane was brought down by “the Lone Ranger,” the code name for Jan van Risseghem, a Belgian mercenary who was piloting a small jet fighter from which he shot at Hammarskjöld’s plane. According to the film, the pilot was part of a rogue military group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), which ran covert operations at the behest of the CIA and MI5. SAIMR was headed by an unhinged white supremacist named Keith Maxwell, who liked to dress up either in all-white or in full eighteenth-century naval regalia, including a tricorn hat and a sword. Hammarskjöld was purportedly found with a playing card—the ace of spades—tucked inside his shirt collar. It is a death card, and presented here as a signature of the CIA. 

The film’s shocking revelations about SAIMR—which include an attempt by Maxwell to infect the black population of Africa with the HIV virus so that the whites will eventually outnumber them—are the most disturbing part of the film, if not apparently the most sound. After Cold Case opened at Sundance earlier this year, The New York Times did a news story looking into the veracity of the AIDS conspiracy angle of the story, and found it to be unsubstantiated. Likewise, the two investigators discover a cache of secret papers, named “Operation Celeste” and ostensibly written by SAIMR members or Maxwell himself, outlining the conspiracy to take down Hammarskjöld’s plane. Although these papers were released by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998, no firm conclusions were drawn.

While the film eventually bites off more than it can chew, its cinematic style is one of its most provocative features. The film is framed by scenes of Brügger dictating the script to one of two female African secretaries who work for him. The point of the doubling is not clear, except to heighten the sense of an arbitrarily skewered narrative. Both secretaries tap away—somewhat curiously, in this age of computers—on loudly clacking manual typewriters and ask comically leading, naïve questions, such as: “Did you already summarize the whole story?” Or, “Is it bad for the story?”

On the office wall, there are yellow post-it notes inscribed with typed reminders, which, like storyboards, delineate the plot. There is also a subtly ominous soundtrack, which signals without trumpeting them what are likely to be dire developments up ahead, and is among the touches that add an inescapably noirish element to the film. As if this were not enough, Brügger also toys with the viewer like a postmodern Hitchcock, musing on his own lack of efficacy at spinning a propulsive and taut thriller and wondering if he has produced, instead, a rambling and wildly speculative, not to mention amateurish venture. At one point, Brügger goes so far as to admit that he is unsure whether SAIMR is a real organization or if, rather, it might not all be “an elaborate hoax embedded in reality by Keith Maxwell.”            

It is impossible in this paranoid-making era to watch Cold Case and not be made to feel uneasy by the secrets it unlocks and the human aptitude for evil that it exposes. Its questions about the ways in which corporate interests—such as the Belgian mining company Union Minière du Haut Katanga, which backed Tshombe’s breakaway move—can undermine good intentions (in this case, Dag Hammarskjöld’s integrity and vision of a more egalitarian distribution of wealth in Africa), could not be more timely. Although the film starts out by positioning itself as a deliberately meta-inquiry, replete with self-mocking gestures, it ends by being a deeply serious and deeply unsettling portrait of a world run by exploiters, whose avarice and self-interest is served at the expense of the vulnerable and the dispossessed.