Friday 4 October 2019

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Mads Brügger, 2019)

Cold Case Hammarskjöld sees feather-ruffling filmmaker Mads Brügger turn his attention to the mysterious death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.  During the Congo Crisis, Hammarskjöld was en route to attempt to broker a ceasefire between Katangese troops and UN forces, but was killed in a plane crash in what was Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).  Congo had only recently gained independence from Belgium, and tensions were high in the region; Hammarskjöld was keen for newly-independent African countries to establish themselves and escape the long shadow of colonialism, and naturally this stance brought about many enemies.  It was widely known that mining companies such as Belgian venture Union Minière would benefit from the removal of Hammarskjöld, but quite who, if anyone, is responsible for his death - MI6, the CIA and South African intelligence have all been suggested as possible saboteurs of the plane - has remained the murkiest of mysteries for well over 50 years.

Brügger's investigation takes him to various African locations, including the spot where the Douglas DC-6 carrying Hammarskjöld went down; for much of the film, Brügger is joined by Göran Björkdahl, who possesses a metal plate - purportedly from Hammarskjöld's plane - which his father obtained while visiting the crash site in the 1970s.  Although Brügger is digging (quite literally, at one point) to find out the truth about Hammarskjöld's death, it's clear early on that the film, in many ways, is more the Mads Brügger show than anything else; perhaps this is to be expected, given his past life as a TV host.  There's a showboating, flippant and baiting side to Brügger, who's first seen proudly sporting an all-white outfit; later, he - like Melania Trump in Kenya - dons a pith helmet, that symbol of white colonial rule.  He also, for no discernible reason, chooses to dictate to two equally baffled secretaries.  But such eccentric behaviour masks a man who is actually quite adept when it comes to obtaining sensitive information, and Brügger goes further than many would dare, unearthing some unpleasant, genuinely disturbing findings concerning post-colonial Africa.

Black witnesses were not seen as credible at the time and place of Hammarskjöld's death so, as you'd both hope and expect, Brügger tracks down a number of of them, and they all recall certain common elements from that day in 1961: the sight of a second, smaller aircraft; a flash of light in the sky; a loud, gunshot-like noise.  From these (and other) interviews, a hypothesis emerges: a bomb was planted on the unguarded aircraft before it took off from Léopoldville, but this explosive device failed to detonate; thus, a backup plan was put into action, wherein a fighter jet was scrambled in order to shoot down Hammarskjöld's plane.  A Belgian-British pilot who served with the RAF in WW2, Jan van Risseghem, is here alleged to be the man who carried out the mission.  Van Risseghem died in 2007, but his links to breakaway state Katanga are well documented.  There's also the matter of a playing card - the ace of spades - which was apparently tucked under the dead Hammarskjöld's shirt collar; apparently this calling card - a "death card" - signals CIA involvement, although instinct tells us it may well have been planted by someone completely unconnected to Langley.

All this is sufficiently troubling, but Brügger's enquiries eventually lead him to an organisation called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR).  Don't be fooled by its benign name - this was a shadowy paramilitary outfit which worked with the Apartheid regime, and its alleged activities range from involvement in Dag Hammarskjöld's murder to the spreading of AIDS (under the guise of giving vaccines against the virus) in order to eradicate black Africans.  SAIMR was headed by a figure known as "Commodore" Keith Maxwell (among other aliases), whose written ravings reveal an unhinged character, one who'd possibly read Heart of Darkness one too many times (but still missed Conrad's central point).  Maxwell has frequently been likened to Auschwitz's "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele, which perhaps tells you more than you wish to know about his deeds.  It's hard to work out what, if anything, is true among Maxwell's diaries, and a valid question is asked more than once: why would such classified, incriminating information be written down?  Cold Case Hammarskjöld is an unnerving, chilling and frequently horrifying film, and it stands as one of the year's finest documentaries.  It screens at the London Film Festival today and tomorrow.

Darren Arnold