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“The American President is a Conspiracy Theorist”: Mads Brügger on Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Mads Brügger in Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Photo by Tore Vollan, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

A conspiracy theory is meant to provide just enough information to send you tumbling down multiple dead ends, desperate for a branch of legitimacy to grasp onto. It must begin with an undoubtable event (say, the death of a famous figure) that lacks concrete evidence as to how it took place. There must be several figures who go on the record and offer conflicting reports (or provoke the sense that they’re hiding something more sinister). There must be multiple probable reasons for this event to have taken place (the famous figure had it coming, the famous figure experienced bad luck). In the end, you should be left with several possible outcomes that, if your life depended on it, you wouldn’t be able to confidently sign off on.

Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld offers up one such conspiracy theory: the death of the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, on September 18th, 1961. En route to Ndola, Zambia in an attempt to bring peace to the ongoing Congo Crisis, Hammarskjöld experienced a plane crash just before landing that left him and 15 other passengers dead. What caused that crash has been disputed, as has the way Hammarskjöld specifically died. Many of the bodies burned, Hammarskjöld’s did not—it was found with an ace of spades playing card placed inside his collar, indicating the CIA was involved. If you find that hard to believe, there are numerous other tea leaves you could investigate. Brügger, front and center in his film that spends all 124 of its minutes creating hypotheses that indict everyone from the aforementioned Central Intelligence Agency to the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), is determined to reach some kind of a satisfying conclusion.

A satisfying conclusion doesn’t necessarily require concrete evidence, however, and as the film progresses, Brügger’s film, talky and inundated with information that’s intentionally overwhelming to both the filmmaker and the viewer—tackles everything from an evil mad scientist who, under the guise of innocent inoculation, infects his African patients with the AIDS virus in an attempt to wipe out the entire black race to the goofy physical appearance of the chainsmoking Hammarskjöld himself. It has been said that every film is a document of its own making, but perhaps few are as strong a testament to that theory as Brügger’s, the filmmaker letting the audience in on the frustrating process to discover, sort, and present information that may ultimately end up not much more than a few red herrings. Just as things are at their bleakest, clues begin to fall into place (or as best as they could). 

Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Cold Case Hammarskjöld is now in theaters courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Filmmaker sat down with Brügger to discuss his love of conspiracy theories, as well as the difficulties that come with crafting a narrative around them. 

Filmmaker: Did you grow up a fan of conspiracy theories? Were you obsessed with television programs like Unsolved Mysteries and Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction?

Brügger: I am, by nature, attracted to mysteries which refuse to be demystified. That is something I really enjoy. I was a teenager in the 1990s, and in my mind, the rise of conspiracy theories really began around then, with Oliver Stone’s JFK film and also that book Apocalypse Culture, which totally mesmerized me. I bought it in Copenhagen. They have an interview with legendary American conspiracy theorist, James Shelby Downard, about how three eventsthe 1945 testing of the atomic bomb at the Trinity site in New Mexico, the 1963 killing of JFK, and the 1969 moon landingwere, in fact, all part of a Masonic ritual. It’s totally bonkers but it’s also enormously interesting and entertaining. 

For me, conspiracy theories are a kind of pornography for journalists. It’s something I do enjoy while also being very careful about not going down the rabbit hole. A little bit of conspiracy won’t do you any harm. I mean, who cares these days? We’re currently living in a time where the American president is a conspiracy theorist. I initially thought of the Dag Hammarskjöld case as a conspiracy theory for senior citizens. That was my understanding of the case. What I then enjoyed was the concept and megalomania involved in two middle-aged Scandinavian guys going on a quest to prove that the UN Secretary General was the victim of an assassination. What could possibly go wrong there? (laughs) 

As we went along, it moved from the realm of conspiracy theory to conspiracy reality, partly because of the work of Göran Björkdahl and the work of a British historian, Susan Williams, who published a landmark book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. Since more than 50 years had passed [since his death], some of the archives were opening up and the remaining witnesses were no longer afraid to spill the beans. Suddenly there was a critical mass of new information pointing toward the belief that Hammarskjöl was assassinated, which is a very disturbing piece of information.

Filmmaker: Much of your film is about the difficulty of forming a narrative out of a conspiracy theory. You deliberately let the viewer in on the winding structure of the film’s making. What is it about the mechanics of storytelling that you wanted to share with your audience?

Brügger: What I have discovered is if you, as a journalist or storyteller, aren’t afraid to reveal your shortcomings, failures and weaknesses, then that is something audiences will enjoy and they’ll become more supportive of your work and follow you wherever it leads. It’s not very interesting or entertaining if you have an all powerful, one-hundred-percent sure-about-himself-or-herself storyteller. I envisioned a film where the first part would be basically Göran Björkdahl and I goofing around— meddling in the past, trying to uncover buried secrets, but not really having a decisive breakthrough. The  second part of the film would be an almost mathematical, very clearly structured horror film. That was my ambition and luckily it turned out that way.

Filmmaker: Were the yellow Post-its outlining the chapters and beats of the film always in play?

Brügger: Quite early on I realized that we were piling up a mountain of research. We were working on leads which ultimately aren’t in the film, i.e. a Romanian lead, a Russian lead and so on. If there were ever to be a film, a clearly structured film and a film not lasting five or six hours, it would have to be saturated with narration. But then I was looking for a device which would make the narration more cinematic and entertaining, and this led me to the idea of featuring the two secretaries. This also had to do with me being the son of two journalists. Growing up in the 1970s, the sound of my parents working on typewriters was something I clearly remembered. I have a very fetishistic side and I’m really attracted to the sound of typewriters. I also realized that many of the essential documents in this story were written on typewriters and so, in a strange way, it’s a typewriter film. 

Another thing I realized was that I was working on a film totally devoid of women (except for the two widows we briefly speak to). There were also very few black Africans in the film. These observations prompted me to consider featuring the two secretaries [in the hotel room sequences]. I had an ambition of the secretaries being the avatars of the audience, so when we shot the scenes in Kinshasa and Cape Town with Clarina and Sapphire, I basically told them, “I will tell you a story and if you have any questions as we go along, please feel free to ask,” and they began asking these wonderful, interesting, funny and often brilliant questions.

Shooting these scenes, I needed something which could serve as a point of reference for me about where we are in this multi-layered and eclectic universe, so I did have an actual need for those Post-it notes. But there’s also something very appealing about  Post-it notes, especially when they have child-like writing on them. That’s something I really like.

Filmmaker: And the viewer anticipates what’s to come because the Post-its provide three or four upcoming plot points as bullet points. 

Brügger: Exactly. That’s the reason they’re there.

Filmmaker: What was it like returning to the hotel that Keith Maxwell once stayed at, dressing in white in much the same way Maxwell did, and with a typewriter that Maxwell himself could have used? 

Brügger: Because we only had one available photograph of Maxwell, the only way of visualizing him as a character in the film would be to “perform as Maxwell” in a way. It was a way of visualizing post-colonial and neo-colonial relations in practical terms. This includes interracial relations, as I myself am extremely white, basically the last point before albino. I was looking for a suggestion of something sinister, maybe even abusive, especially at the beginning of the film, so the idea of a creepy white guy in a hotel room with a black woman [would work]. My idea was for the power structure, which is established at the beginning, to crumble. By the end, you know that the two secretaries are on top of the game.

Filmmaker: How did you get synced up with Göran Björkdah?  

Brügger: I had read a newspaper article about the work Göran was doing (tracking down the remaining black witnesses), and if it were true, it’d be the story of the century. I wrote him and asked if he would come to Denmark to meet and he did. I was pleased to find out that he was the exact opposite of a conspiracy theorist—a clear-minded, skeptical and very gentle man. He’s the most Swedish man I have ever met. Whilst meeting for the first time, he told me about the metal plate he had [from the plane Hammarskjöld was killed in], which really made my clock tick because it has these fairytale qualities to it, and we pretty much went from there. At that point in time, no one knew that this would turn into a seven year quest, of course, but that’s how it began.

Filmmaker: The film hops around to different countries and different years. The film is technically told in a chronological manner, but you’re pulling from a ton of footage that becomes recontextualized the more the story is revealed. For instance, when you’re out in the airport fields with your metal detector searching for the discarded aircraft parts, the footage doesn’t last more than 10 minutes total, but it’s spread out over the first 90 minutes of the film. How did you work with your editor to continuously jump around and yet streamline the narrative?

Brügger: Nicolás Nørgaard Staffolani is a brilliant editor, but editing this film was a case of trial-and-error. We had to create a language of our own, working very carefully with how comic relief would be deployed in the film, not overdoing it and then making sense of it all. Our initial rough cut was maybe five hours long? I had to kill a lot of darlings. For example, I had a long narration and explanation about how the actual rulers of the province of Katanga, the Union Minière mining corporation, was partly Belgium and partly British and how they were, in geopolitical terms, probably the most important company in the world at that time, as they were mining the uranium used for the American atomic bombs free of charge. That’s why the Americans had a huge interest in Katanga and what Union Minière was doing. I also had a long narration about the killing of Patrice Lumumba and how he was taken to Katanga to be tortured and killed by a death squad. His body was decomposed with sulfuric acid that was actually delivered by Union Minière. He was killed a few months before Hammarskjöld was killed. But all of these things had to go because otherwise the film would have been much too long.

Filmmaker: You employ animation in the film, including, but not limited to, a dramatization of the plane crash that opens the film. 

Brügger: I had a number of doubts about employing animation in the film. It’s like walking into a minefield. Once you introduce it, it has to be done consistently and with a clear idea. If it’s not aesthetically correct, it can totally destroy your film. Claudia Bille Stræde, who did the animation, is wonderfully gifted and recently came out of the Danish Film School. I had a meeting with her that convinced me her people could pull it off. I was explaining the aesthetics I was looking for, something very distinctive and simple, black-and-white and grayish. I was very happy with the outcome, but even that was an example of killing our darlings because in the edit we did shortly before closing the film, I had a sequence about how in the 1970s, the American investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein went to the Madison Hotel in Washington to have lunch with the fabled American spymaster [and chief of CIA Counterintelligence], James Jesus Angleton. During that lunch, Angleton tells Epstein that Hammarskjöld was, in fact, assassinated! It was very interesting and Claudia’s team did some wonderful animation of Angleton, who has this very iconoclastic face, but that unfortunately had to go.

Filmmaker: There’s a sequence in the film where you get “totally honest” and question why you decided to do an investigative report on someone the general public doesn’t even care to remember. Were there times where you thought you’d abandon the project?

Brügger: What is needed at that point in the film is a clean slate. We needed to reboot and reshuffle everything, because from that point on we descend into the demonic underworld of SAIMR (South African Institute for Maritime Research). At that point, the film needs a change of tone. I was worried about having a film which suggests a possible “black holocaust” and then having someone accuse me of goofing around and making jokes and performing as a comedian for a subject this serious, etc. I thought the only way of dealing with that would be to address my own fallacies, tendencies, shenanigans, as a piece of self criticism, but also as a point of criticism regarding my previous films and how I used to do things, as a way of saying I have to change my ways in order to go through with this endeavor. It’s risky business, it’s very difficult, and I had a lot of doubts as to if it would actually work.

Filmmaker: You address how Hammarskjöld was himself a goofy character that was hard to take seriously. Was his demeanor a challenge for you?

Brügger: The perception of Hammarskjöld in Denmark (and other parts of Scandinavia) is that he was a bit lofty, but also boring. When you see footage of him, he does come across as a kind of screwball comedy character, but as we went along, I became a total Dag Hammarskjöld nerd, and am a big fan of him today and really admire his work and legacy. What we did was a way of addressing what at least some people thought about Hammarskjöld at the time. It’s true that in Scandinavia, people of my generation and younger hardly know anything about him. I think there are people in New York who know more about Hammarskjöld than in Denmark, actually, but he’s a fascinating character regardless. A fun fact: when he was living in New York in his apartment on, if I remember correctly, Park Avenue, he had a pet monkey which was given to him when he visited Somalia. He kept that monkey on a leash in the apartment and he had a Bulgarian butler, which was also very exotic. It was very Tintin-esque.

Filmmaker: I’m curious about your interview late in the film with Alexander Jones of SAIMR, who asks to stop filming at one point when he’s about to provide you with what sounds like damning information.

Brügger: Yes.

Filmmaker: Of course, you have to honor his request, but that’s also frustrating in a sense because then the audience hears that part and we wonder—

Brügger: What he told us off-camera?

Filmmaker: Yes, and what answers do you now hold that you can’t share with us.

Brügger: I have to honor the agreement with Alexander Jones, so even though what he told us is highly interesting, I can’t talk about it! Considering what he had been explaining up to that point in the film, when he says, “Please stop the camera,” it had to have been something very sensational (which it was). But it’s also a nice moment, because it shows him as being aware of being filmed, and it’s a way of toying with the expectations and needs and desires of the audience. 

Filmmaker: In choosing to include that moment in the film, you’re inviting that speculation.

Brügger: Yes, there are a few points in the interview where he shows or exposes uncertainty as well, which I like.

Filmmaker: Without spoiling anything outright, the film ends with Göran still very much determined to find out the truth about the Hammarskjöld case. It’s a little sad, seeing this man’s undying determination and investment in the case. It almost feels like you’re making a comment on obsession and how hard it can be to let go. When did you finally know, for yourself as a filmmaker, that it was time to let go?

Brügger: A part of me would love to continue, but I also have to let it go. Friends and family are sick and tired of me ranting about Dag Hammarskjöld. Göran will definitely continue his quest. He is the archetypal private investigator, which is a persona I really enjoy. With Göran, as a character, continuing his work, who knows what he will discover in the future. If it were possible to establish the actual existence of a laboratory in the jungles within the Congo (as described by Keith Maxwell in his fictionalized memoir), that would really be a breakthrough moment, if it’s possible to find it. But that’s like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, because the Congo is the size of Western Europe. It’s enormous.

Filmmaker: The on-screen text at the end of the film doesn’t necessarily dispute some of the theories your subjects bring up, but it does question them. Was that intentional?

Brügger: Yes, as I think critics of the film will say it’ss rekindling and reinvigorating fears of vaccines and black Africans’ fears about white doctors and so on (and the conspiracy theories about how AIDS and HIV were man-made). I found it important to state clearly that we have no actual proof of a vaccination program as suggested by Maxwell. What we do know is that two people experienced taking part in something that reads a lot like what Maxwell writes about in his memoir: a vaccination program with the purpose to kill off black people by infecting them with HIV. That is something which two of our subjects experienced taking part in. We know about the clinics of Maxwell, how he was experimenting on black people there. We have an eyewitness who saw him giving them injections, and we have the strategy papers of Maxwell, which fits hand-to-glove with what two of our subjects in the film spoke about. What is still needed is a in-depth investigation done by a government agency into all of this before we know for sure if there was such a program, how it was financed, what its size and scope were, and so on. That is for other people to investigate. We did, however, facilitate a meeting with Alexander Jones and the United Nations. They met a while ago in Stockholm.

Filmmaker: That’s progress.

Brügger: Yeah, it is.

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