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The natural tendency of people, myself included, to believe what they read and hear in the mainstream media means that government agencies are able to constantly lie to us, and, what’s more, to get away with it. The normal pattern is that we are told a convenient fiction at the time, and then 50 or so years later the truth emerges.
So it is with the murder of Dag Hammarskjöld, who was Secretary-General of the United Nations when he died in 1961. For many years afterwards the plane crash, which killed him, was seen as a terrible accident, despite rumours about sabotage, but now the truth is finally coming out, thanks in no small way to the work of this film.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld is written and directed by Mads Brügger, who previously made The Red Chapel. The latter is ostensibly about a Danish comedy act traveling to North Korea with Brügger as their manager, but this was the cover story to gain access to the closed state, and the film within the film is about how the Danes deal with living for a short time in a totalitarian state. It’s hilarious and moving. Also a bit disturbing. Brügger seems to have a sense of humour which activates when he puts himself in dangerous situations. That’s not to say he’s always politically correct, there were some jokes about his fellow comedian’s disabilities in The Red Chapel, which I found uncomfortable, and in this film, the insistence on wearing pith helmets strikes a wrong note. All I could think of was the outrage caused by Melania Trump wearing one in 2018 on her trip to Kenya.
Cold Case begins in the middle of a sorry chapter in the postcolonial Congo Crisis, which took place in the early 1960s. Patrice Lumumba, Pan-Africanist and first Prime Minister of the new Republic of Congo had already been assassinated in January 1961. When the province of Katanga broke away from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, fighting broke out between the rebels (sponsored by Belgian mining multinational Union Minière du Haut Katanga) and UN troops, which were supposed to be there only in a peacekeeping role. On his way to broker a ceasefire in the crisis, Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash along with 15 other people.
The crash has always generated conspiracy theories, since Hammarskjöld had been ruffling feathers at the UN by promoting the rights of Africans instead of colonial interests and there have long been rumours of a second plane. The UN has recently recommenced an investigation into what happened, as more evidence comes to light.
This film is guaranteed to shake things up.
Göran Björkdahl is a Swedish aid worker whose father has a metal plate in his possessions which was supposed to have come from the plane (and which was riddled with bullet holes). Teaming up with Björkdahl to make the film (a Swedish/Danish dream team just like The Bridge - except not as good looking), Brügger has no problem finding witnesses to the attack on the plane. Funny that nobody else thought to ask the people living in the area what they saw that night.
It quickly becomes clear that the plane was indeed shot down, and Björkdahl has even tracked down an ex-CIA officer who asserts that there were live recordings of the incident. Team Björkdahl and Brügger find the site where the plan was buried and start digging, only to be asked to stop. Brügger says something about how it’s better to act first, then ask for forgiveness, and the affable attendant replies that he agrees, but they are within the grounds of the airport.
Attention then turns to the crash site, since for example there is a photo of Hammarskjöld lying dead with a playing card tucked into his collar. Apparently this was a CIA calling card. Another weird thing not mentioned in the film is that Norwegian Major General Bjørn Egge, who was the first UN officer on the scene, went to his grave saying Hammarskjöld had a bullet hole in his forehead. There was also talk of a bomb. It’s hard to know which theory to believe!
This confusion in conspiracy theories is resolved by the discovery of a detailed plan to assassinate Hammarskjöld which talks about using three options (shooting him, shooting down the plane, bombing the plane) to make sure he died. This plan was handed into the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, and is alleged to have been made by a shadowy group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR).
Overall, this is a mind-blowing documentary and definitely worth a watch. I sincerely hope the corruption and scheming that led to the death of a UN Secretary General will eventually be revealed completely.