The blitzkrieg of award season is right around the corner, and with it, we can expect an onslaught of stunt performances designed to wow Academy voters and feature editors (and also viewers?) with their evident degrees of difficulty and demonstrable totality of transformation. With Daniel Day-Lewis having strapped on the Lincoln beard for Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master offering Joaquin Phoenix a chance to return to mainstream good graces after the immersive performance of I'm Still Here, it's difficult to imagine an experimental Danish documentary siphoning off too much Best Actor attention. But make no mistake: In The Ambassador, Mads Brügger — who, as both featured performer in and auteur of films that seek to capture reality through fiction, is sort of the Euro film-festival equivalent of Sacha Baron Cohen, when Cohen was interesting — gives what has to be one of the riskiest and most committed performances of the year.
In 2010, Brügger won the world documentary prize at Sundance for his first feature, The Red Chapel, a hidden-camera comedy in which Brügger posed as the impresario of an experimental-theater troupe made up of two Danish-Korean comedians — one of them severely developmentally disabled — in order to smuggle cameras onto a "cultural exchange" trip to Pyongyang without raising the alarms of their North Korean hosts. The Ambassador, like Chapel before it, is a document of a lie created to tell the truth. It begins with Brügger purchasing a diplomatic title on the black market to travel to the Central African Republic (CAR) in the guise of an ambassador to Liberia. To his title brokers and to his new African associates, Brügger claims his goal is to use his perceived position (and bribes, secretly funded by the Danish Film Institute) to go into business with blood-diamond miners and move the gems out of the country under the cover of diplomatic immunity. Because he needs a business front, Brügger also claims to be building a match factory — staffed by Pygmies — in the incredibly disadvantaged region.
As Brügger tells it, the CAR is "a Jurassic Park for people who long for the Africa of the 1970s," making it "a magnet for white men with hidden agendas." It's also so rich in resources — cobalt, gold, and oil, as well as diamonds — that postcolonial France still considers the region its "savings bank" and keeps the country under constant surveillance in part to protect its interests from that new-kid-on-the-block carpetbagger, China. In character, Brügger ingratiates himself with his local fixer by faux-casually mentioning he has "a problem with Asian people" and produces anti-French and anti-Chinese propaganda to sell his would-be match-factory employees the notion that this pasty foreigner is on their side.
In Chapel, Brügger included footage suggesting that he dropped the act whenever his North Korean hosts couldn't see him, and even in front of them, Mads and his collaborators carried on frequent back-channel conversations in Danish that reminded the audience that a tenuous prank was underway. In The Ambassador's prologue, Brügger declares, "Here ends my life as a Danish journalist," and in the opening credits, he's seen costuming for his new role. From that point on, when he's onscreen, he never breaks character. Brügger himself has contextualized the performance with a comparison to that pinnacle of colonial misadventure fiction, Curious George, calling his ambassador "the Man With the Yellow Hat gone bad." With his wardrobe of fishing hat, aviator shades, ostentatious cigarette holder, and linen pants tucked into riding boots, Brügger's conception of the decadent, blithely exploitative Westerner in Africa is like Hunter S. Thompson meets Carl Denham from King Kong — perfect for the figurehead of a film that's part gonzo journalism, part dangerous exhibition to domesticate the unknown by filming it.
It's an open question as to whether Mads's act was transparent to anyone else we see onscreen. Often the angle (and crappy video quality) of the footage suggests it was captured on a hidden camera, but sometimes the subjects seem to know they're being filmed. We occasionally see the camera being stashed in advance of a meeting, one way the director points out the staging of the undercover act. Another method: acknowledging the questionable ethics of the act itself. Brügger knows he'll never build a match factory, and he knows promising the destitute locals jobs that will never exist is, like, not a nice thing to do. Via voiceover, he admits to "giving these people a false sense of hope. But diplomats do this every day." In other words, he would arouse suspicion as a faker if he didn't seem to be exploiting the penniless while profiting from alliances with the thugs oppressing them.
The Ambassador bursts out of the gate and then slows into an endurance exercise for Brügger and the viewer: How long will he be able to pull this off? You watch both fearing that something spectacularly tragic could happen and knowing that if this film exists, something tragic probably didn't happen. The movie's publicists sent out a news release clarifying some backstory and specifying what happened after the last scene, which I won't reiterate here because I think it constitutes a spoiler. The Ambassador's wrapup is vague and sudden, and necessarily so: For the movie to work, you need to wonder if maybe, at some point, Brügger stopped acting and really became the crooked international asshole he was supposedly just pretending to be. The magic of Brügger's performance is that it earns that suspension of disbelief.