Please note: viewers may find allegations in this film deeply upsetting; they will be discussed in the post-screening Q&A.
Around midnight on 18 September 1961, a small plane flying over a remote part of Central Africa crashed, killing all 16 people on board, including then-U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld who was en route to negotiations for a ceasefire in the ongoing Congo Crisis. The accident was officially blamed on pilot error; however rumours have persisted for decades that it was a well-planned assassination. But who wanted Hammarskjöld dead, and why?
With the twists and turns of an elegantly plotted murder mystery and the intrigue of an international espionage thriller, Cold Case Hammarskjöld winds its way through three continents and almost seven years of investigative reporting. Director Mads Brügger and his colleague, private investigator Göran Björkdahl, follow a series of ever more startling leads, red herrings, misdirection and dead ends, uncovering evidence that puts them on the trail of a story more bizarre than they ever imagined.
From Zambia and South Africa to the UK, the US, Russia, Spain and beyond, Brügger conducted an estimated 50 interviews with witnesses both central and peripheral to the tale, leading him into a constantly widening maze. Known for his offbeat journalistic style, the filmmaker deadpans, ‘At first, I just enjoyed the idea of two middle-aged Scandinavian men setting out to uncover a conspiracy to kill the Secretary-General of the United Nations. What could possibly go wrong there?’
Using vintage news footage and photos as well as exclusive interviews and archival documents, Brügger unveils a journey in which answers only create more questions. What is the meaning of the mysterious playing card found intact on Hammarskjöld’s partially scorched body? Why was an unassuming young marine biologist murdered? What did witnesses see in the sky that night? Could it all be an elaborate hoax perpetrated by an eccentric, highly skilled propagandist?
‘For me, Dag Hammarskjöld was most of all a ticket to all the things I really enjoy,’ Brügger admits in the film. ‘Tracking down Belgian mercenaries, telling tales of evil men who dress in white, the ace of spades found at crime scenes, rumours about secret societies. This is why I went along for the ride, not really knowing where it would lead. For almost seven years, Göran and I worked a murder case. But we never dreamed that we were on the verge of discovering a kind of horror that would put my shenanigans to shame.’
As in any well-crafted mystery, it turned out Brügger and Björkdahl were just about to stumble upon evidence that would eventually change everything they believed. A cache of documents released by post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission opens the door on a shadowy paramilitary organisation called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), which may have been funded by the international intelligence community, including the CIA and MI6. The documents also allude to an alleged plot to ‘remove’ Hammarskjöld.
The story begins to gain momentum with the discovery of a secretive figure named Keith Maxwell, who styled himself ‘commodore’ of SAIMR. Dressing exclusively in crisp naval whites or, for special occasions, the brass-buttoned uniform, cutlass and three-corner hat of an 18th-century admiral, Maxwell sometimes claimed to be a doctor and ran medical clinics throughout poor Black areas in Africa offering low-cost health care and vaccinations. Could he be the key to unlocking all of SAIMR’s secrets?
Now deceased, Maxwell left behind a half-finished, somewhat fictionalised memoir called The Story of My Life that seemed too improbable to be true. Initially unsure of who or what they are investigating, Brügger and Björkdahl track down other rumoured members of the group, and are met with denial, ridicule, hostility and excuses. Locating witnesses who recall meeting the colourful Maxwell is not a problem, but finding anyone who acknowledges being a part of or even knowing much about SAIMR is all but impossible.
General Tienie Groenewald, former South African intelligence chief and attaché to the South African Embassy in London, is among those who have a clear memory of Maxwell. For Brügger, his interview is one of the most important in the film. ‘Until then, I was seeing Maxwell as some kind of demonic clown, a kook,’ he says.
The filmmaker changed his mind when Groenewald described what he says was his first encounter with Maxwell, who he claims offered him the services of a mercenary group. ‘He had the resources to use violence and to supply weapons to set us up,’ the retired general confirms. ‘But I was convinced he was financed and directed by MI6, British intelligence. After three-and-a-half years in Britain, you get to know some people involved in the intelligence field.’
Although Groenewald declined the offer, his words affected Brügger’s perception of the situation. ‘He said he had never heard of SAIMR, which was very bizarre,’ explains the director. ‘He had been the head of military intelligence. He had to know. That actually gave us even more determination to find the truth.’
The Hotel Memling in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a relic of colonial times and was one of Maxwell’s haunts in his SAIMR days. Catering to foreign visitors, it retains a kind of faded glamour. From a room there, Brügger provides the film’s narration clad in spotless whites, standing in for Maxwell, the man he has pursued relentlessly for so many years. He dictates the action of Cold Case Hammarskjöld to Clarinah Mfengo and Saphir Wenzi Mabanza, a pair of incredulous local women. They are there to record his words on a vintage manual typewriter and act as a sort of Greek chorus.
‘Early on it dawned on me that this film would have to be narration-heavy,’ Brügger explains. ‘I was looking for a device that would make it more entertaining. It also dawned on me that I was potentially working on a film without any women or Black Africans. That led me to the idea of the secretaries. My thinking was that they could represent the audience, so I told them that if they had any questions, to please speak up. And they asked brilliant questions.
‘I also thought it would be a unique and effective way of visualising colonialism and racial relations in Africa,’ he adds. ‘I dressed in white primarily because our villain only wore white, but also, in a strange way, white is the colour of power in this story, so it accentuates the interracial relationship in a powerful cinematic effect.’
As he constructed his narrative, Brügger realised he was making a true crime, Cold War-era spy thriller. ‘So I used the tropes of the genre to build my story. Having difficulties at first and having leads go cold is good for the narrative. If everything is perfectly clear from the beginning, that’s not interesting. And that is the way it played out in reality. We did have a lot of difficulties for a while and hit a lot of dead ends, resulting in at least one fairly expensive wild-goose chase.’
Brügger and Björkdahl uncovered a wealth of circumstantial evidence, but the ultimate smoking gun still eludes them, says Brügger. As Björkdahl continues to follow additional leads and track down more witnesses, the U.N. has initiated a new investigation into Hammarskjöld’s death. The report, expected to come out in July 2019, will include evidence that Brügger and Björkdahl have submitted. ‘If we can contribute anything to that I will be very happy,’ says the filmmaker.
When asked if he believes SAIMR is still in operation, Brügger shrugs. ‘I have no sense that it is still active,’ he says. ‘We do manage to establish that SAIMR was very real. I believe it shut down with the fall of the apartheid regime. But that could be something SAIMR wants us to believe. It was a weird outfit, like a cross between Hezbollah and Scientology. Perhaps there is a successor out there. Some of what we discovered we know is very real. But some of it is very difficult to prove.’
COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD
Directed by: Mads Brügger
Production Companies: Wingman Media, Piraya Film, Laika Film & Television
In co-production with: Associate Directors DR, SVT, Bertha Foundation, Doc Society Film i Väst, BBC Storyville, RTBF, GEO Television
Produced with the support of: Danish Film Institute, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, Eurimages, Norsk filminstitutt, Svenska Filminstitutet, Fritt Ord, Filmkraft Rogaland, Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), Flanders Film Funding, Belgian Tax Shelter, Hinterland
Produced by: Peter Engel, Bjarte Mørner Tveit, Andreas Rocksén
Written by: Mads Brügger
Director of Photography: Tore Vollan
Editor: Nicolás Nørgaard Staffolani
Sound Design & Mix: Senjan Jansen
Saphir Wenzi Mabanza
De Wet Potgieter
Marion Van Risseghem
Clive Jansen Van Vuuren
Robert Cedars Alexander Jones
Julian Ogilvie Thompson
African Odysseys: Cold Case Hammarskjöld + discussion
Sat 9 Apr 14:00
Art in the Making: The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright + intro by Adrian Steel, Director of Collections and Programmes at RIBA
Tue 12 Apr 18:15
Experimenta: Illuminating the Wilderness + discussion with artists and makers from Project Art Works
Tue 26 Apr 18:15
Terror Vision: The Funhouse
Thu 28 Apr 21:00
Fri 29 Apr 20:45; Thu 5 May 20:45; Fri 6 May 20:45
Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.
BECOME A BFI MEMBER
Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at bfi.org.uk/join
We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.
See something different today on player.bfi.org.uk
Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at www.bfi.org.uk/signup
Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email