– Per Fly directs a sturdy but speculative account of the Swedish UN Secretary-General, whose death remains shrouded in mystery

Review: Hammarskjöld

Mikael Persbrandt (centre) in Hammarskjöld

Dag Hammarskjöld was only the second Secretary-General of the United Nations and was widely seen as a benchmark for those to come; of his successors, only Kofi Annan has also claimed the Nobel Peace Prize. The circumstances of his death, however – as his plane crashed en route to a peacekeeping summit in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) – have kept him somewhere in the discourse, furnishing elaborate conspiracy thinking and echoing forward to today’s geopolitical morass.

With his biopic, simply titled Hammarskjöld, writer-director Per Fly and his co-writer Ulf Ryberg are faced with such a compelling historical narrative and central persona that screwing it up is almost untenable: the structural guardrails for their work feel already in place. And that largely is the case in their conventional but fluidly told film, especially as you get used to the less convincing US-set scenes and accents. It enjoys its international premiere this week in IFFR’s Limelight strand.

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Fly’s film is neatly positioned between celebrating Hammarskjöld as the clearest thinker in the room and seeing him as partially authoring his demise, the victim of a saviour complex. Incarnated by Mikael Persbrandt with a steely reserve, Hammarskjöld attempted to placate all sides in the unfolding Congo Crisis, supporting decolonisation in Africa but leaving Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first democratically elected president, too politically isolated. With Katanga, a province in the Belgian Congo, having declared itself an independent state (whilst remaining a front for the continued interests of Belgian mining company Union Minière), Hammarskjöld deployed UN peacekeeping forces, who couldn’t deny the unfolding coup. Departing the slicked-back hairdos and business suits of the UN headquarters scenes, which uncannily and accidentally evoke those of Mad Men, the film confidently sets the majority of its second half in the Belgian Congo, creating a suitably paranoid and fatalistic atmosphere. With Hammarskjöld’s cool temperament starting to fray, you can sense in Persbrandt’s eye movements his fear that he’d never see his adopted home of New York, nor Sweden, again.

Although closely following the historical record, the screenplay also draws major inspiration from the afterword on Hammarskjöld’s life. Whilst stopping short of dramatising a “smoking gun” confession from his enemies, Fly and Ryberg convincingly attest that the UN Secretary-General was at immense risk from parties who had ruthlessly neutralised their political enemies before; having John F Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson, remarkably playing him for the third time, after Jackie [+see also:
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and Blonde) drop in for briefings at the UN helps underline the threat that politicians faced in this backstabbing Cold War era. There is no direct evidence that Hammarskjöld was gay either (although he was largely assumed to be), but he gets a fictionalised ex-lover, through whom he rediscovers his ardour for poetry. These two speculative factors help humanise a man acutely aware of himself as a public figure constantly under watch; like any savvy politician, the filmmakers know that rhetorical clarity sometimes overrides indisputable facts.

Hammarskjöld is a co-production by Sweden, Norway, Denmark and South Africa, staged by Unlimited Stories, Nordisk Film Production AB, Sveriges Television AB – SVT, C More Entertainment AB, Nordsvensk Filmunderhållning AB, Maipo Film & TV Produksjon AS and DO Productions. Its world sales are handled by Beta Cinema.

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