Cold Case Hammarskjöld, directed by Mads Brügger, is one of the craziest documentaries that you may ever see in your life. A magnificent and fascinating work of gonzo journalism, this film is strikingly political, making an event that occurred almost sixty years ago feel like it is still relevant and even urgent.
The movie offers an investigation into the mysterious 1961 death of former U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, which some believe to have been an assassination. However, as Brügger gets deeper and deeper into the story, he realizes that there may be something even more sinister afoot, with ties to Apartheid South Africa. Even though the assassination of a Secretary-General may seem crazy enough already, the story only gets weirder from there, and is better for it.
Brügger makes his film stand out even more because of his unique style of gonzo journalism through which he approaches the movie. By making himself, the investigator, a part of the story, it makes the audience feel like we are making these discoveries along with him. This illusion of involvement makes it much easier to get involved in the story.
Another impressive aspect of Brügger’s style is that he is able to blend genres so seamlessly. Of course, this is a documentary at its core, but it also plays out like a mix of whodunit mystery and espionage thriller with a dark and dry sense of humor. It is a very unusual combination, yet it somehow manages to come together into a cohesive whole that is thoroughly satisfying.
The pacing of the film is very strong too. Even though the runtime of a bit over two hours is longer than average for a feature-length documentary, it feels much shorter because you are constantly entertained. Brügger knew how to structure his movie in a way so that the big reveals would have maximum impact, and he succeeds, creating a documentary that is often shocking.
Additionally, the way in which the subjects are developed in the film is very interesting. Less time is spent exploring the persona of Hammarskjöld than the South African Institute for Marine Research (SAIMR), which ends up becoming the true focus of the documentary. Keith Maxwell, the former leader of that organization, is presented in a dark way, turning him into what is perhaps the most terrifying and menacing on-screen villains of the year so far.
In terms of execution, this is certainly one of the best documentaries you will see all year. The editing is magnificent, combining the different styles of footage that are used to tell the story in a way that is smooth and aesthetically-appealing. The cinematography is quite beautiful and precise. It is obvious that Brügger had a vision of how he wanted this story to be told, and he pulls it off excellently.
Much like the filmmaker’s experiences, Cold Case Hammarskjöld is very different from what you would expect in the beginning. That said, the result is one of the most entertaining, well-made, and creative documentaries that you will see all year.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld opens in theaters and hits VOD on August 16.