Conspiracy theories are understandably tempting. They attempt to provide a narrative to our world, often to the horrors we cannot easily explain. But what’s the difference between a conspiracy theory and a mystery? Does the truth dwell in conspiracy until there’s enough evidence to support it? And how much evidence is needed to push a story from fiction to fact? Like in his 2011 documentary The Ambassador, writer/director Mads Brügger is fascinated by the concept of truth, particularly with how it relates to social issues. While his new movie, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, begins as a murder investigation, it eventually discovers forces far more sinister are at work. The “how” of the story is immensely complex and surprising, but the “why” could boil down simply to human nature.
On September 18, 1961, a plane containing UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld crashed near Ndola, Zambia. Hammarskjöld was on his way to find a resolution to the Katanga crisis, which represented a disruption to the exploitation of black workers by Western mining interests. Hammarskjöld wanted to give local populations the rights of self-determination, a move that was in direct opposition to the corporate interests that wanted to exploit these populations for financial gain. Although a ruling at the time claimed Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed due to pilot error, there was enough suspicion to spur Swede Göran Björkdahl to investigate due to his family’s personal relationship with Hammarskjöld. Brügger eventually joins Björkdahl in this investigation, and through a framing device, recites their discoveries to two different African secretaries. However, their investigation of Hammarskjöld’s death leads to a much bigger and far more disturbing discovery.
“This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory,” Brügger tells one of his unnamed secretaries. In truth, Cold Case Hammarskjöld is neither. Its murder mystery is important, and yet even Brügger recognizes that it’s a bit underwhelming. Hammarskjöld is captivating for what he intended to do, not what he actually accomplished, and so his death, while tragic, may not be particularly relevant. Not many people remember Hammarskjöld, so what can an investigation into his death possibly uncover beyond shadowy figures and powerful interests?
It turns out there’s quite a big reveal in the final 45 minutes of the two-hour documentary, and I won’t spoil it here. However, you can frequently see the roots of that reveal earlier in the documentary since the conflict that Brügger is illuminating is one of exploitation. What Cold Case Hammarskjöld does in an effective yet maddening manner is weave together fiction and fact. The fiction is a grand conspiracy theory that’s so dense and wide-ranging that even if someone were to sit down and confess its existence, you would be hard-pressed to believe it. If that fiction is true, the consequences are mindboggling and so deeply disturbing that you probably won’t sleep after seeing this documentary. But whether that narrative is true or false is ultimately unimportant because the fact of Cold Case Hammarskjöld is white supremacy.
White supremacy is what Hammarskjöld recognized was harming the people of Africa, and there’s no denying that exploitation continues to this day. Again, I don’t want to give anything away because part of the “fun” of the movie is the discovery, but I will say that it’s pretty easy to draw a line from white corporate interests to Hammarskjöld’s death and the continued exploitation of African people. You don’t really need a documentary to tell you it exists, but the story surrounding Hammarskjöld’s murder (and the film makes a pretty compelling argument that Hammarskjöld was murdered) is what illuminates that larger truth.
Where Cold Case Hammarskjöld gets disturbing is if you accept that there are powerful forces out there that could assassinate the Secretary General of the UN and get away with it, then you also have to wonder what else they’re capable of. That’s the nugget at the core of many conspiracies—there are powerful, shadowy forces out there that pull the strings and everyone else dances to their tune. Cold Case Hammarskjöld gives that organization a name and a face, and then it’s up to the audience to determine how much to believe. Brügger is well aware of the artifices and shortcomings of his medium; he even points them out to us. The aim appears to be that Brügger is laying all his cards on the table to show that while he may be investigating deceptive people, he is not a deceiver himself.
I imagine some will find Cold Case Hammarskjöld more shocking than I did, not because I already believed the revelations presented, but because its larger truths about power and exploitation are self-evident. That’s not to diminish the documentary’s claims, which are deeply horrifying, but rather to acknowledge that there’s plenty of verifiable horrors in our world that don’t need a potential conspiracy theory woven around them. Brügger excels at living in the blurred lines between fact and fiction, but it’s hard to discern specifics truth in that space. After two hours with Cold Case Hammarskjöld the most powerful reaction I had was, “Huge, if true.”