Rating: (4 stars)
“Cold Case Hammarskjold” wants to blow your mind.
In this unsettling, formally slippery documentary, the entire notion of investigative documentary is turned on its head, as viewers are led down an increasingly vertiginous path to the mercenary underside of global realpolitik. A cut-and-dried murder mystery that becomes a gnarly thicket of hegemonic ruthlessness, racism, shadowy cabals and a proudly unreliable narrator, this trippy junket to the dark side is ideally suited to our conspiracy-minded age. Believe it or not — but see it, if only to experience the most proficient exercise in alternate history this side of “Serial.”
The titular protagonist of “Cold Case Hammarskjold” is Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary general of the United Nations who died in a plane crash in 1961, in what was then northern Rhodesia. Although his death was ruled an accident, several observers noted the suspicious circumstances of his death, including how convenient it was for certain political and corporate factions. As a proponent of self-determination and economic independence in Africa, Hammarskjold was considered a threat to interests that had long seen the continent’s vast resources as theirs for the taking.
Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger re-examines the episode, returning to the place where the remains of Hammarskjold’s plane were buried and following an investigator named Goran Bjorkdahl down a rabbit hole that ends with a pretty convincing case that the U.N. leader was indeed murdered. But Brugger doesn’t stop there: The rabbit hole leads him into even more disturbing areas that have disquieting relevance to modern-day life, from medical epidemics to the equally fatal contagion of white supremacy and militarism.
“Cold Case Hammarskjold” is so creepily convincing (if far from conclusive) that it might sound odd to call it delightful. But Brugger resists the temptation to take himself too seriously: Appearing on camera as an earnest, often amusing character, he enlists the services of African stenographers to whom he dictates his script, often going off-book to question his own position as a white Westerner acting out his own form of appropriation. Whose story is being told in “Cold Case Hammarskjold,” and who has the right to tell it? Alongside the evidence that Brugger and his collaborator try to marshal on behalf of their hypothesis, the filmmaker’s meta-inquiry threads through the narrative like part of an ever-tightening double helix.
Funny, provocative and chilling, “Cold Case Hammarskjold” draws the viewer into that helix and manages to be improbably entertaining, even as it becomes increasingly, shockingly uncomfortable. It’s impossible to emerge from this film without being shaken to your core. Mission accomplished: Mind blown.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some mature thematic material.
In English, French, Swedish, Bemba and Danish with subtitles. 128 minutes.