Review: Cold Case Hammarskjold

In this thoroughly odd documentary, Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger heads to Zambia after hearing conspiracy theories and tall tales about how UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was murdered in 1961. In his search for the truth he’s joined by Swedish aid worker and part-time detective Göran Björkdahl, and as they dig both figuratively and literally, they begin hearing about a secret society of spies and assassins from South Africa who may have been the perpetrators of the killing. At first it sounds entirely outlandish, but as the story widens, it seems there actually is some nefarious group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR) and one of their members tells the tales of their many bad deeds on behalf of corporations and governments. And it’s gripping.

The film is told in a very stylized and dramatic form. Brügger, dressed in all white, sits in a hotel room dictating the outlines of his story to a secretary who happens to be played by two different women. And it’s pretty light and fun starting out. But it shifts in tone when he meets an assassin who is happy to tell all. There are enough credible accusations about the murder of Hammarskjold to make the case for his assassination, rather than the official story that it was a tragic accident. But what of the SAIMR group and their association with governments and countless other evil deeds that are recounted in the film? While some of it rings entirely and chillingly true, I’m not so sure that Brügger wasn’t the victim of a scam or two along the way. A lot of what he presents as truth comes from the semi-fictionalized memoir of the dead SAIMR leader Maxwell, who was known to dress in either all white or in 18th-century naval regalia, and may well have been insane. Brügger also repeats the dubious the line that SAIMR was working to spread AIDS in Africa through vaccines as part of a white supremacist plan.

Nevertheless, the film is frequently funny and the stories suck you in, and you walk out wondering if the group that could murder a man who was just trying to make peace in Africa is still working against peace to this day. As conspiracy flicks go though, this one leaves a lot of room for more exploration. Why were the CIA and British intelligence really so afraid of a brokered peace in Congo that they’d kill? Is this SAIMR group still operating in the shadows in Africa and beyond, and for whom? I think a lot of the stories revealed in the film could make for a good spy movie. It’s a film that will leave you asking questions. And that’s always a good thing.

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