Cold Case: Hammarskjold is a new documentary suggesting the United Nations general secretary killed in a 1961 plane crash was actually murdered in a conspiracy by South African white supremacists in cahoots with the CIA and who later orchestrated the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Or at least maybe, sort of.
Dag Hammarskjold was the renowned Swedish diplomat whose plane was downed in what is now Zambia, then British-controlled Northern Rhodesia. He was in route to meet the leader of mineral-rich Katanga, the province militarily trying to separate from the newly independent Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Believing the DRC’s integrity was vital to the cause of post-colonialism, Hammarskjold had dispatched UN troops to suppress the Katanga revolt. But the war became an imbroglio, and nearly all the great powers had become exasperated by the UN chief’s presumption. Moïse Kapenda Tshombe‘s separatist Katanga government sought support from the West against the DRC’s pro-Soviet regime under Patrice Lumumba.
Hammarskjold’s plane crash at night near a small airport killed him and his party of 15 others. Several investigations across seven decades have found no conclusive proof of a murder plot. The plane, which partially burned after its crash, was closely examined, its parts hauled away, with no evidence of gunfire or explosives. Hammarskjold’s body, apparently thrown from the plane during the crash, was not burned and was photographed and autopsied.
But like the JFK assassination, the Hammarskjold plane crash has been subject to endless conspiracy theories. Most theorize that the Belgian mining interests supporting separatist Katanga orchestrated his death. A Belgian mercenary pilot employed by Katanga has often been cited as the triggerman who shot down Hammarskjold’s plane.
Cold Case: Hammarskjold embraces this theory, even ambushing the Belgian pilot’s elderly widow, who scoffingly walks away. But unable to generate much drama around this allegation, supported by one surviving friend who claims to have heard the pilot’s confession, the film pivots to South Africa in search of wider conspiracy.
That conspiracy entails a shadowy mercenary group called the South African Maritime Research Institute, which supposedly was central to killing Hammarskjold. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission found documents claiming the tie but could not confirm their authenticity or even the shadowy organization’s existence. It was reputedly led by a mad genius who only wore white, sometimes dressed in a 19th century British admirals uniform, claimed to be a commodore, sometimes posed as a doctor, and whose widow recalls him as mentally ill.
The documentary relies heavily on the unpublished memoir of this deranged “commodore,” which it illustrates with sinister cartoon footage. One reputed mercenary survivor of the commodore’s command is discovered, and he claims that decades later the South African mercenary group boasted to its trainees of having killed Hammarskjold. The group’s larger goal was fighting African political power, which later included spreading the AIDS virus to black people, he asserts. Admitting he has no evidence, he speculates British intelligence and the CIA were ultimately the orchestrators, of course.
A brief flash card at the film’s end admits there’s no evidence of this plot to spread AIDS, which it says medical experts find implausible. But this confession by text, which nullifies much of the documentary’s thesis, is not permitted to detract from its drama. The film’s star is its Danish producer Mads Brügger, who dons a pith helmut to dig for old plane crash debris in Zambia, and who shares his angst with attentive African female secretaries laboring over manual typewriters in a Congolese hotel.
Brügger, the creator of political film satires featuring himself, confesses toward the film’s end that he doesn’t care about Dag Hammarskjöld, whom nobody recalls, and who seems like an old sitcom character. Instead, he wanted a larger story, which he failed to document, so he essentially patched together his own fable, which requires a decades-long conspiracy so deep it can’t be proven.
The film’s footage of Hammarskjold and brief references to him are the only interesting parts because they are the only reality permitted to intrude on Brügger‘s one-man comedy act. Hammarskjold was a brilliant and tireless diplomat, a mystic and monastic who was both devout Christian and spiritual seeker. His critics thought him messianic. He thought his pursuits of world peace served the Messiah. Learning more about him would have been truly fascinating and revealing of his times. Instead, Cold Case: Hammarsköld offers a postmodern post-truth psychodrama based on ego instead of the actual geopolitics it superficially claims to analyze.
Troublingly, a Washington Post review extolled Cold Case: Hammarsköld as “oddly delightful,” “creepily convincing (if far from conclusive),” and “shockingly uncomfortable.” A more serious New York Times review concluded the film is “finally poised unsatisfyingly between an explosive exposé and a self-conscious put-on. Even a full acceptance of its assertions doesn’t do much to illuminate Hammarskjold’s death. The case may be muddier, but it’s still cold.”
A separate New York Times piece questioned the film’s AIDS allegations, which it noted began in the 1980s as Soviet disinformation. A South African AIDS researcher is quoted: “One dangerous consequence of these allegations is that they have the potential to sow mistrust and suspicion of doctors and the medical establishment, and that they may confuse people about how H.I.V. is transmitted.”
No doubt, but apparently entertainment based on conspiracy porn overrides global health concerns. Dag Hammarskjold would not have approved.