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Our Critic Says 'Cold Case Hammarskjöld' Is A Pretty Good Trip

Magnolia Pictures

Dag Hammarskjöld was a Swedish diplomat who became Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953. Some called him a compromise candidate who was considered harmless, but over his time at the UN he was active and effective, until he died in a plane crash on September 18, 1961 in Ndola, Zambia, then known as Rhodesia. Ever since then, there’s been wonder about that crash, and now Swedish filmmaker Mads Brügger with investigator Göran Björkdahl have made a film about the event and many things connected to it.

To say the least Cold Case Hammarskjöld is an eccentric movie.

The film has an odd set-up. Brügger and Björkdahl seem certain that Hammarskjöld was murdered, and the guy who may be the villain, an elusive and long-dead Keith Maxwell, always did wear a white safari shirt and shorts. So early on filmmaker Mads Brügger is there is a hotel room in Ndola in the same outfit, but he’s dictating his narration and his ideas to an African woman who sits at an old typewriter listening and typing. The setting is the same hotel where Maxwell sometimes operated, and there are two different women who alternate sitting at that typewriter, with no mention ever that the actors change.

The two women are black, while most everyone else who figures significantly in the film is white, and they’re posed awkwardly – they must turn around to talk with Brügger. Their discomfort emphasizes the white/black relationships that permeate the story. Probably behind the murder of Dag Hammarskjöld was a plan to thwart the development of African countries run by black Africans in the early 1960s. Hammarskjöld wanted to help those new African countries establish themselves on their own terms.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld also takes a roundabout route in its investigation. It looks at the politics of the time, talks to old South African generals and operatives from the apartheid period. Mads Brügger even complains about having to interview so many old white liver-spotted men. Maxwell is a story by himself – not a doctor, he set up clinics that some thought was deliberately infecting black Africans with AIDS, although the UN has said that did not happen. So, the movie must thread its sometimes gymnastic, convoluted way through a maze of truths, rumors, lies and hidden information.

In a photo of Hammarskjöld’s body, a card rests by his neck. It’s supposedly that ace of spades Brügger mentions, which several people in the film say was a CIA calling card. A mercenary pilot called The Lone Ranger is suspected of shooting down Hammarskjöld’s plane. Maxwell also set up an organization called SAIMR – the South African Institute for Maritime Research – which a former member says was a British-sponsored plan to help re-establish white supremacy in Africa by destabilizing governments and other acts of violence. And through it all lurks the presence of a Belgian mining company unwilling to surrender its power to Africans.

It’s a fantastic story, and finally, one of the black typists turns to Mads Brügger to ask the essential question – does he think it’s true.

That’s the big element in the whirlpool of story. Some parts probably true; some clearly not. But Cold Case Hammarskjöld has the honesty to try to separate truth from speculation from probability from rumor and lies. It’s a pretty good trip and it highlights that the world is tricky, and maybe problems of hatred, manipulation and truth were just as nasty then as they are now.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld opens Friday, August 16th exclusively at the Chez Artiste in Denver.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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