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The Documentary Filmmaker Trying to Unravel Europe’s Longest-Running Conspiracy Theory

Mads Brügger, the director and star of the chilling, twisty ‘Cold Case Hammarskjöld,’ talks political assassination and our endless fascination with the 1961 death of U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld

Americans seem to have an inexhaustible fascination with political conspiracy theories. For more than 55 years, we’ve argued about who killed JFK, and more recently, there’s been suspicion surrounding the suicides of Vince Foster and Jeffrey Epstein, with some arguing that these men were murdered by powerful parties wishing to silence them. The eternal allure of conspiracy theories is both obvious and a bit ominous, speaking to our collective instinct to believe the worst of human nature — and also, perhaps, our desire for a good, juicy story that we think we’re being denied.

This tendency isn’t unique to Americans, however. For almost as long as we’ve been obsessed with learning the “truth” of Kennedy’s assassination, Scandinavians have debated what became of Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish aristocrat and diplomat who was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953. Never known as a particularly dynamic figure — by all accounts, he was a nerdy bureaucrat with a professorial bent, partial to smoking pipes — Hammarskjöld was, nonetheless, committed to helping African nations find their independence after years of colonial rule, even if that put him at odds with countries and corporations exploiting the continent for their own benefit.

That friction inspired many to interpret his death as anything but an accident. On September 18, 1961, his plane crashed near Ndola, now part of Zambia, killing him and 15 others. Pilot error was the official explanation, but soon rumors circulated that Hammarskjöld had been murdered, probably because of his desire to help free Africa. And it wasn’t just the tinfoil-hat brigade perpetuating this narrative: Mere days after Hammarskjöld’s death, Harry Truman declared to The New York Times, “Dag Hammarskjöld was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said, ‘When they killed him.’” In recent years, the U.N. has reopened an investigation into Hammarskjöld’s death, only exacerbating a belief that the world has never learned the full truth of what caused his plane to go down.

Enter Mads Brügger, a journalist, TV host and documentary filmmaker whose name is usually followed by the descriptor “provocateur” in interviews and festival press notes. The Danish director cast himself in his previous two films, each of which sported a daring premise. In 2009’s The Red Chapel, Brügger snuck into North Korea alongside two Danish-Korean comedians, convincing the government that they were there for a cultural exchange and to perform shows for the locals. Brügger’s sly exposé of North Korea’s repressive society received numerous comparisons to the stunt cinema of Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen, not to mention the World Cinema Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Two years later, he followed it up with The Ambassador, in which he once again went undercover — this time as a well-connected Liberian muckety-muck who uses black-market connections to acquire diplomatic credentials. He used those credentials to journey to the Central African Republic to gain access to blood diamonds — and unmask the corruption and greed running rampant in the trade. The Liberian government threatened legal action against Brügger, whose reputation for fearless gonzo journalism was only further burnished.

With that as his résumé, it would be understandable to assume that his approach to investigating Dag Hammarskjöld’s death would be similarly shocking. And while Cold Case Hammarskjöld is, indeed, outrageous, it turns out not to be in the ways that you expect. Brügger dons no disguise; hidden cameras aren’t deployed. Instead, he, alongside Swedish private investigator Göran Björkdah, dive deep into the case, spending years looking into leads, interviewing eyewitnesses and associates, and uncovering remarkable new information that, sometimes, is only tangentially connected to the Hammarskjöld case.

(Note: If you don’t want to know what’s uncovered in Cold Case Hammarskjöld, which opens this Friday, read no further. Come back after you’ve seen the documentary.)

Among the startling revelations, Brügger finds evidence of a paramilitary group known as the South African Institute for Maritime Research, or SAIMR, which may very well have been involved in the secretary-general’s murder. He speaks to Alexander Jones, who claims to be an ex-SAIMR operative with knowledge of the killing — as well as information about Keith Maxwell, SAIMR’s so-called commodore, who allegedly wanted to create a program that spread AIDS among blacks in southern Africa in the 1980s and 1990s in the hopes of wiping out the population. Jones’ revelations are stunning, but Brügger cannot corroborate them. Has he found the truth or launched a new conspiracy theory?

When I speak to Brügger over the phone, he tells me he’s riding a bike through Copenhagen, a whimsical image that stands in stark contrast to the twisty, disturbing film he’s crafted. Brügger may not have risked his life with Cold Case Hammarskjöld, as he did in his previous two documentaries, but he remains a provocative onscreen presence, using as a framing device a series of interactions between himself and two separate black African female secretaries who sit with him in a hotel room as he, dressed as Maxwell, tells them the story of what he’s uncovered. Colonialism, secrets and death are at the heart of this dark film, with Brügger as our unlikely guide. 

After The Red Chapel and The Ambassador, where you had to be in disguise and use hidden cameras, it must have been a bit of a relief to assume, at the start of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, that you wouldn’t have to go to such lengths.
Initially, I thought it would be a fairly traditional documentary. It was not my idea to be on camera. But as we went along, I quickly discovered that Göran and I on camera together, we come across as a very odd couple — there was a quality in that. In other mystery [stories], they often work in pairs, as a duo. I wouldn’t say that [I thought] it would be an easy film, but I had no idea that it would last almost seven years.

Early in the documentary, you say, “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.” When you were starting on the journey to make this film, were you sorta hoping it would lead to a bunch of crazy conspiracy theories? It’d certainly be more entertaining that way.
Well, yes, but at the same time, when you get a film fully funded in Denmark — and also the Swedish and Norwegian film institutes — and the investigation takes years, you’re [expected] to show up with something similar to a smoking gun at the end. If you show up with a conspiracy theory and nothing else, that could be a problem. I actually felt a pressure accumulating to have to deliver something more than a conspiracy theory.

You were basically obligated to come up with some sort of answer.
Göran and I were on a quest together, and both of us, as we went along, had a gut feeling of something very sinister and dark hiding itself in the center of this. Göran is self-propelled — he would investigate this no matter if I was with him or not. My daytime job in Denmark is working as head of programming at a national Danish news organization. I’m not financially dependent on making films, which allowed us to keep going. A filmmaker who is dependent on having to finish a film within maybe two, three or four years would probably have had to walk away from the film.

You mention in the movie that Hammarskjöld was something of a nerdy technocrat — is it hard to make a film about someone who, personally, isn’t that dynamic?
In Denmark, most people of my generation and especially younger than me, their knowledge about Dag Hammarskjöld is very minute. He’s considered a lofty, kind of boring Swedish diplomat, and he does have that essence. He comes across like a character from a screwball comedy — the way he’s smoking his pipe, wearing a bow tie. That was my initial perception of him, but today I am a through-and-through Dag Hammarskjöld nerd, and I admire him a lot.

What comes across is that, if Hammarskjöld had lived, Africa might be in better shape today. He sincerely wanted to help the continent get out from under the thumb of outsiders.
I learned that Dag Hammarskjöld, toward the end of his reign, was working on a program called OPEX, which was about providing recently decolonized countries with financial experts and economic advisors. [OPEX] would help these countries governing themselves, dealing with their old colonial masters, which would have made a whole lot of difference in how it played out. When the Congo became independent, they had maybe 16 guys with high-school diplomas who were charged with running a country the size of Western Europe.

Alexander Jones

Your big “get” was landing Alexander Jones, who speaks in great detail at the end of the film about his experience working with SAIMR. How easy was it to get him to talk?
First we shot a research interview with him. The deal was, “This will probably not be in the film, but you’re still on the record.” During that interview, he did say interesting things, but he’d only talk about Maxwell and the killing of Dag Hammarskjöld. He absolutely refused to discuss anything else relating to SAIMR, the operations he did and the whole HIV/AIDS side to it — he didn’t want to go there.

Following that interview, for weeks [and] months, we were in contact with him, and then we met to shoot the [official] interview. During the shooting of that interview, he suddenly goes on about Maxwell’s clinic [and] the “vaccination” program [meant to spread HIV among black Africans], which Göran and I had no idea that he would disclose.

That’s one of the most, I’d say, disturbing interviews I’ve ever done — what he says is so very revolting and harrowing. I do understand why people think of what he says as implausible or not credible. But before shooting the messenger, you should realize that he has nothing to gain from this at all. Quite the contrary — he had to leave South Africa just because of [what he told us], and I do believe he’s very sincere when he says that he needs closure. Having been a journalist for many years, you do sense that people are the real deal or not. I’m convinced that he has an army background, and I’m also absolutely sure that he was very close to Maxwell — that he knows things about Maxwell that only a person who is in the know would know. Getting to meet him was very much a game-changer.

As a filmmaker and journalist, how do you balance being entertaining and informative? There’s a lot of information in Cold Case Hammarskjöld, but you also want people to enjoy the experience of watching the movie.
The form of the film isn’t a film where I interview experts, scientists, historians. I only meet people who have been involved in [the story] themselves — the people who witnessed the crash, people who actually took part in the South African Maritime Research Institute, and so on. If this was the more traditional or conventional journalistic exposé, you would probably go talk to an HIV researcher and ask for their comments, but that would be a different film from the one I’m making.

My film in many ways is also a meditation on the borderland between fact and fiction. Essentially, the best example is Maxwell’s memoirs. [Editor’s note: Now dead, Maxwell left behind a fictionalized memoir called The Story of My Life.] The first time I went to South Africa, I found some of Maxwell’s writings about HIV and AIDS, so quite early on I knew about how obsessed he was with HIV and AIDS. I really struggled with how to deal with that — if that should be in the film or not. Because that could easily hijack the film.

Because it’s so upsetting and inflammatory?
It is upsetting, but it’s [also] a diversion from Dag Hammarskjöld. You’re trying to find out about Dag Hammarskjöld — was he assassinated? If so, by who? And then suddenly, you’re talking about using HIV as a biological weapon to kill black people. It’s in many ways a game-changer — many people would argue, a completely different film. Then learning about Dagmar Feil [a marine biologist who allegedly worked for SAIMR but then had misgivings about their mission, later being found dead] — and then getting to meet Alexander Jones and discovering how these two narratives work with each other. 

This isn’t in the film, but the reason why Alexander Jones knows about Dagmar Feil is because the person who recruited Dagmar Feil into SAIMR was the boyfriend of Dagmar Feil, and he was in Alexander Jones’s unit in SAIMR, which is why he knows about her. And then, of course, finding the last part of Maxwell’s memoirs in the possession of Dagmar Feil’s mother, which is so very weird and mind-boggling made me realize that this had to be in the film.

But I did provide several disclaimers at the beginning and at the end, but also throughout the film: Please be conscientious [that] this could be true or this could not be true. It calls for further investigation.

Is that part of the reason you have the black African secretaries in the film — so that they can question what we learn?
I was hoping, as we were filming the scenes, that they would provide sound skepticism — ask the essential questions, such as, “Do you think this is really true?” And also being the avatars of the audience, asking the questions which the audience would ask.

It’s a loaded image — you, a white filmmaker, with these black women working for you.
There is an issue of colonialism at play — me being very white and dictating narration to these two women working as secretaries. At first in the film, I’m very much in control as a prototypical colonialist. [But] as the film develops, the power structure flips, and my certitude and assertiveness crumble. At the end of the film, they’re on top of the game, and they’re calling the shots and have agency — I’m a wreck at the end of the film.

In those scenes, are you “performing”? Not that you’re being inauthentic, but that you’re, in a sense, playing a journalist who’s being interrogated by these women?
There’s a lot of ambiguity in these scenes because they’re very naturalistically made. I basically told them, “Now, I will tell you a story. As we go along, please ask questions.” At the same time, I’m somehow performing as Maxwell — you know, dressing like he did. Obviously, it becomes very uncomfortable when they realize what Maxwell did, that I’m sitting there dressed as him. But the scenes also provide comic relief in the film. So they serve a multitude of purposes.

I imagine, making a movie on this subject, that people interested in Hammarskjöld wanted to share their pet theories about what happened to him. You probably heard a ton of crazy things.
Oh, yes, and I still do.

So what’s the craziest theory you’ve heard?
There are all sorts of schools within the field of Dag Hammarskjöld murder-mystery lore. There is a school that believes that the assassins were a group of Romanian secret agents freelancing for the KGB who came to the Congo hiding as an economic delegation. There is a school that believes that the pilot who brought down the plane was a German — it’s very convoluted and complicated. There’s also a school that claims that there was a secret passenger aboard the plane who brought the plane down. There’s even a school that claims that Dag Hammarskjöld himself made the plane crash because he was suicidal. It’s a never-ending story.

Did you feel like you had to do your due diligence and check them all out?
No, as time went along, I developed an instinct about what was pure, distilled craziness and what could be true. For example, I know for sure there wasn’t a secret phantom passenger aboard the plane. I also know for sure, because I spent a lot of time and energy investigating the Romanian lead, that there wasn’t a Romanian delegation of assassins in the Congo in 1961. In that sense, I’ve developed sound instincts.

In the U.S., we remain obsessed with theories about who killed JFK. Political conspiracy theories are always popular. We apparently can’t get enough of them. How do you feel about conspiracy theories?
Of course, you have to be very careful about conspiracy theories — they’re sort of pornography for journalists. As such, I do enjoy it, but I’m also very conscientious about being skeptical. But at the same time, some conspiracy theories do turn out to be true.

As such, regarding Dag Hammarskjöld, I wouldn’t say that I was leaning toward “It probably was pilot error which brought down the plane,” but I was very skeptical about the whole deal. But meeting the black witnesses who saw and heard what happened in 1961 — and being in Ndola and learning about how the plane crashed eight miles from the airport in a countryside that’s as flat as a pancake, and yet, 15 hours went by before they officially discovered the plane — that’s something which should make you question everything about that plane crash.

When reading old interviews with you, I noticed that your work gets compared often to Sacha Baron Cohen and Michael Moore. How do you feel about that?
I really admire Sacha Baron Cohen. I think, in many ways, he’s a genius and one of the most important satirical filmmakers around these days. Regarding Michael Moore, he’s much more an activist than I am — there’s more journalism in my films than you’d find in the films of Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen. Basically, I shouldn’t be the judge of that — that’s for others to discuss.

Whether it’s your earlier films or Cold Case Hammarskjöld, it seems like you have an affinity for being on camera. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I do enjoy being on camera.

Comic duo

For this movie, how did you broach the subject with Göran that you were going to be a kind of onscreen duo?
It happened kind of naturally. At first it was Göran who was the only one on camera doing the interviews, but then gradually I intervened, and we began shooting scenes where Göran and I were talking together. While I was going through the scenes, I realized, as time progressed, that we should work as a team in the film. Also, I quickly realized that this was a film that would be saturated in narration — it would be a very narration-heavy film in order to make sense of it all. Which of course makes you ask, “Who is the narrator in all of this?” And me being the narrator, it would also make sense if I was then visible in the film.

In the press notes, there’s a mention that the U.N. plans to have a new report on Hammarskjöld’s death out in July. It’s now August, and no word.
I think it will happen soon. Probably mid-August is my feeling.

Have you been communicating with the U.N.?
We did facilitate a meeting with Alexander Jones and the U.N. — they met in Stockholm a couple of months ago where he gave them his affidavit about what he knows about SAIMR and the killing of Dag Hammarskjöld. We also screened the film for the U.N. investigators, and we’re providing them with the documents that we’ve assembled.

What do you think their findings will be?
I do expect that they’ll publish a report that’s leaning on Dag Hammarskjöld being the victim of assassination. I also presume that this will lead to another, more in-depth investigation.

While watching Cold Case Hammarskjöld, I thought about what it means for a documentary to “succeed” — that it “should” have some definitive answer for the mystery it’s exploring. You don’t provide one clear-cut “answer” — do you feel like your movie succeeded?
Well, maybe it’s a bit clumsy, but solitaire is a metaphor in the film. Meeting Alexander Jones is a solitaire moment because he connects many of the dots. In a way, the film is a meditation on the quest for truth, on journalism, on secret histories, about how fact and fiction is interlinked. So I think that the film succeeds. Of course, there are still a lot of questions left unanswered, which calls for further investigation. But without risking sounding self-congratulatory, I’m happy with how the film turned out, yes.

What do you mean by solitaire as a metaphor? There’s a shot of you playing the game in the film — all the cards are the ace of spades.
Quite early on — and this was also what got my clock ticking — I learned about the rumors about the ace of spades in the shirt collar of Dag Hammarskjöld, which is such a mesmerizing and weird detail. [Editor’s note: When Hammarskjöld’s body was recovered, he inexplicably had a playing card tucked into the collar of his shirt. It was suspected to be the ace of spades — a calling card, of sorts, for an assassination operation.] In some ways, [that detail] defined my whole relationship with the case, because you can clearly see that he has a card in his shirt collar, but you cannot say for sure that it is the ace of spades. No matter what, it’s a weird piece of information. How come he has a playing card in his shirt collar — which isn’t mentioned in the autopsy report? And that, of course, leads me to the solitaire scene and the whole idea about playing solitaire as an amusement. But this “amusement” evolves into a horror story, in a very sickening type of way.

That’s the one pure “movie” moment in your film — it’s straight out of the 1970s conspiracy thrillers that I know you’re a fan of.
Quite early on, I read about the rumors about the ace of spades, but then later on we discovered a never-before-published picture of Dag Hammarskjöld as he was on a stretcher at the crash site. When I realized that you could clearly see a playing card in his shirt collar — that was a very decisive moment. A goose-bump moment.

How many goose-bump moments would you say you had with this film? Obviously meeting Alexander Jones was one.
First of all, meeting General Groenewald, the former head of British intelligence in South Africa and him saying in a very assertive way that Maxwell was financed and directed by British intelligence — that was a game-changer, because that made me realize that Maxwell wasn’t the foolish character I thought him to be. Perceiving Maxwell as a credible British intelligence asset was extraordinary. Then, of course, toward the end of our research, finding the last part of Maxwell’s memoirs in the possession of Dagmar Feil’s mother — that’s such a remarkable discovery. It really is stranger than fiction.

Now that you’ve finally finished Cold Case Hammarskjöld, would you do another hidden-camera film like The Red Chapel or The Ambassador? Or do you feel like, “I don’t want to ever go through that again”?
I wouldn’t rule it out completely. But partly because of the success of these films, I’d risk that people would be able to find out who I really am. It’s not as easy for me as it used to be. But it’s something I still enjoy, and it depends on the right idea coming along.

It’s the downside of success: Now, too many people would know, “Hey, that’s Mads Brügger.”
Yeah, exactly.