Documentary ‘Cold Case Hammarskjöld’ plays with form to light up decades-old international conspiracy

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The documentary murder mystery has experienced a resurgence of late — from the realm of serial podcasts to Netflix’s pantheon of grisly murder tales to the true crime literary genre explosing cases that have long gone unsolved, there’s a palpable desire for stories with some sort of concrete solve-ability. “Cold Case Hammarskjöld,” a new long-form documentary released Aug. 16 by director Mads Brügger, taps into this trend. In its exploration of the suspicious death of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961, the film offers an in-depth and spiraled look at a case that slowly and surely becomes more than it appears at first glance — even if it doesn’t settle on any clean-cut answers.

As with any good murder-mystery-slash-conspiracy-theory plot, this one is replete with twists, turns and internal tribulations. Brügger reveals his tale with precision and humility, questioning himself along the way — throughout the film, potential conclusions weave in and out of visibility, and all is uncertain until it isn’t. Thus, the director elevates and unravels the details of a fairly convoluted, nearly 60-year-old story, bringing it to modern-day relevance.

Also central to crafting this film is private investigator and specialist on the Hammarskjöld case, Göran Björkdahl. Details about the circumstances of Hammarskjöld’s death have long seemed dubious and unanswerable, and it is this black box question that brought Brügger to seek Björkdahl’s counsel. Björkdahl has made the Hammarskjöld case his life’s work, searching for answers about the conspiracy since he discovered a metal plate allegedly from the site of the pivotal plane crash in his parents’ home.

Brügger and Björkdahl embark on their quest with only an abstract idea of their aims, which, over the course of the documentary, quickly expand in scope to the realm of global conspiracy. “Cold Case” is a drama and history course in one, with its protagonists traipsing across borders and delving into international affairs in search of answers.

Brügger stylizes the story’s unraveling sleekly, with multiple points of narrative focus. There’s standard documentary action of Brügger and Björkdahl going to the sites of interest, interviewing witnesses and discussing the Hammarskjöld case. But the plot is also augmented by flourishes such as animated sequences illustrating hypothetical scenarios and the details from documents Brügger and Björkdahl discover along the way.

In one of the film’s narrative “plotlines,” Brügger himself dresses in costume as one of the story’s central villains, dictating the structure of the documentary in meta fashion to two secretaries. This step-by-step breakdown of the case adds to the murder-mystery feel of the documentary and allows for moments of respite and reflection from the otherwise snowballing action.

About halfway through the film, the narrative slowly winds away from Hammarskjöld to a more modern conspiracy. A reckoning occurs at this midpoint as Brügger confesses that he truly didn’t know where the documentary was going at this point in filming. This moment is short-lived, and Brügger’s transparency adds to the viewer’s stake in the film, capitalizing on the intrigue of the case and the rush of getting closer and closer to an answer.

Brügger himself also becomes a central protagonist throughout the film’s arc, and his intense, piercing personality adds to the drama. The film bears a strong resemblance to the 2017 film “Icarus,” which similarly follows its investigators as they unravel conspiracies beyond their initial scope of knowledge in seeming real time. Brügger’s own aesthetic choices, candor and personality add watchability to the often grave subject matter being revealed on-screen, but without detracting from its seriousness.

Though there’s not a definite solution lying at the conclusion of the film, the spools unwoven by the end of its two-hour run time make it well worth the watch. “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” incorporates all of the best elements of a murder mystery to make for a compelling case around its subject, leaving some satisfying answers and some more satisfying questions left to explore.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].