'Cold Case Hammarskjöld' Investigates The Mystery Of Deadly 1961 Plane Crash

Aug 27, 2019
Originally published on August 27, 2019 6:56 pm
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Nearly 60 years ago, a plane carrying U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold crashed into the forests of modern-day Zambia. The cause of the deadly crash has remained a mystery. A new documentary takes a fresh look at the case. But as NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports, the film's director may be as controversial as the film itself.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: "Cold Case Hammarskjold" opens in a hotel room in Kinshasa. The film's Danish director, Mads Brugger, dressed in all white, dictates his opening lines to a young black secretary. And one thing becomes immediately clear - anyone expecting a straightforward investigative or historical documentary is in for a ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD")

MADS BRUGGER: This could either be the world's biggest murder mystery or the world's most idiotic conspiracy theory.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In the U.S., Brugger has been compared to people like Sacha Baron Cohen and Hunter S. Thompson. His new film tells the story of Brugger's sprawling six-year inquiry into Dag Hammarskjold's death in search of an answer to the question of who, if anyone, might have shot down or sabotaged the Swedish diplomat's plane. What also becomes clear is that the film is as much about Brugger himself as it is about Hammarskjöld.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD")

BRUGGER: For me, Dag Hammarskjold was, most of all, a ticket to all the things I really enjoy - tracking down Belgian mercenaries, chilling tales of evil men who dress in white, rumors about secret African societies.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Mads Brugger says that candid comedic voice is essential to his approach.

BRUGGER: I am a fan of journalists, but also storytellers who - they actual declare their insecurities, their fallacies, their tendencies.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Brugger's fascination with what he calls the journalistic borderlands goes back to his childhood as the son of two of Copenhagen's most prominent journalists. And he says that his early work could be seen as a form of teenage rebellion.

BRUGGER: I began experimenting with role-playing, identity theft, going undercover.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: For one of his early stories, Brugger infiltrated the youth wing of a far-right Danish political party.

BRUGGER: I also went undercover as a clown at a clown festival in Denmark, thinking it would be interesting because clowns are undercover already. So I would be undercover undercover.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And what did you learn?

BRUGGER: I learned that, basically, the cliche about clowns crying on the inside is very true. Clowns have major issues.

LOTTE FOLKE: I think for decades, people have been confused about what Mads Brugger is up to.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lotte Folke is a Danish journalist and cultural critic.

FOLKE: When you say someone is a controversial figure, you think of them as being somewhat on the margins. But really, the truth is that he's managed to sort of stay in, really, the media elite in Denmark.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Brugger says his position as the head of programming for one of Denmark's national broadcasters has allowed him the financial stability to take risks with his documentaries. In his 2009 doc "The Red Chapel," Brugger posed as an experimental theater director touring with a duo of Korean-Danish comedians in order to gain access to North Korea. In his next film, "The Ambassador," Brugger dug into the shady black market for diplomatic titles.

Brugger's new film "Cold Case Hammarskjold" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where he was awarded the world documentary directing prize. But the film has been criticized for failing to verify some of its most incendiary reporting. Documentary filmmaker and professor Robert Greene says that Brugger's work has value regardless.

ROBERT GREENE: After you watch "Cold Case Hammarskjold," I think you cannot go watch another documentary the same. And I think that that's a value because we need to be interrogating, you know, all forms of media.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Mads Brugger, for his part, hopes that his film serves not only as inspiration for further reporting, but as a reminder to his audience to remain critical of the seductive allure of conspiracy theories.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.