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Doc Corner: 'Cold Case Hammarskjöld'

By Glenn Dunks

Sometimes a movie can turn you off in such an extreme fashion that it almost becomes interesting. Almost. Underlined and in bold for effect. After all, I don’t want to give the false impression that Cold Case Hammarskjöld is in any way a movie that you should watch. Lord knows, my reaction to this smug and smarmy directorial ego trip and non-fiction lark was violently negative, and while I admit that there’s something striking about a documentary that so callously appears to mock its subject and audience, Danish director Mads Brügger can’t spin it into a film that I enjoyed the experience of watching.

It’s also, sadly, completely of the moment. It’s themes of international intervention and conspiracy are probably the sort of thing that will no doubt appeal to certain audiences who can't help looking over at the metaphorical grassy knoll. But this story of (possible) intrigue, (maybe) scandal, and even (potential) AIDS warfare (!!!) is treated with none of the acute seriousness that it (probably) deserves...

As the title suggests, Brügger is telling the story of the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations’ Secretary-General who died in a plane crash in Africa in 1961. Depending on who you ask, his death is suspicious and a goldmine for conspiracy theorists, taken into its web of scandal by the appearance of conflicting stories, mysterious lights in the sky, a mob-like calling card found in his shirt collar, and a long list of enemies enraged by the diplomat’s efforts to protect an evolving and independent Africa. When his plane crashed in Zambia (née Northern Rhodesia), there was enough conflicting information to inspire over 50 years of investigations.

This is all well and good and there have been plenty of works based around cold cases. My mind immediately went to something like The Keepers, which took the story of a dead nun and examined it in a thoroughly investigative way and also got to the emotions for the people involved as to just why it meant to so much to people. What Brügger does here, however, is something akin to a magic bit. Not a trick necessarily, but a routine. A wave of the hands and a shake of the curtain to distract that there really isn’t a whole lot here worth giving your attention to.

Oh sure, the story is fascinating if true. And I have no doubt that parts of it are, or that the people involved believe it. But if all of this is true, the film does a bad job of getting that across. A really bad job. Hypotheticals are raised suggesting elaborate stories that would be world-changing and government-destroying, but you would be hard pressed to really take it all as gospel. The film zips around the globe trying to make something stick, but always ends up with a bunch of rumour and conjecture from people who seem to clearly have grudges to bear. By the end of its two hour runtime, we’re no clearer on what even took place in the first place let alone whether anything truly untoward happened. As a work of rabble-rousing then I suppose it succeeds, but I quickly grew to resent its scattered approach and the overarching pride the film finds in throwing shit at a fan and seeing where it lands. To me, that doesn’t make for a good movie and the director's attempts to get the audience on side of the potential that it's all a bit waste of time does little to engender support.

And then there is Mads Brügger himself; a more unpleasant on-screen presence by a documentarian I cannot recall. Even people who dislike Michael Moore’s constant interruptions at least surely can’t fault his sincerity. Here, Brügger comes off as supremely annoying and majorly creepy as he cosplays in his white suit while leering over the shoulder of two black local women he has hired as secretaries (in a bizarre aside, even he claims he doesn’t know why he did it, which I guess at least makes two of us). He uses his investigation to stoke the flames of conspiracy. He is in almost every scene on camera (or otherwise narrating) doing weird little skits, acting as himself. He is essentially a wannabe Herzog and I did not enjoy it one bit.

I have not seen Brügger’s previous 2012 film The Ambassador, which I understand was also quite popular yet utilised a similar style. I obviously can’t speak to that one (although anecdotally, I have heard from friends who refuse to watch his works after that one), but in the case of Cold Case Hammarskjöld I found it a case of a filmmaker of wild hubris that I couldn’t take anything he said or did seriously. The best thing about this movie is the poster.

Release: Was released this past weekend in New York and Los Angeles with presumably more to now.

Oscar chances: It has buzz after winning the directing prize for world cinema – documentary at Sundance, but I don’t think the branch will take the film well enough to get it into the shortlist. If it does, however, then you never know. I mean, they gave Icarus the whole damn trophy.

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