“Every memory is flawed. We experience something and immediately the memory begins to change.”
Everybody loves a good interrogation. It’s what drives countless crime dramas, boiling conflict down to its purest essence; one character has something the other character wants and they don’t want to give it up. But The Witnesses puts an intriguing spin on that idea. What if the character with information can’t give it up even if they want to, because the human memory simply can’t be trusted to tell the truth?
Based on the real-life work of German–Canadian forensic psychologist Julia Shaw (who also served as a model for the lead character), The Witnesses is built around the idea that our mind is constantly playing tricks on us, creating false memories to patch up our view of the world. A question, if asked the wrong way, can totally destroy a witness’s memory of what really happened. So what happens when these flawed, fragile memories are all the police have to work with?
Emma Konrad, the ten-year-old daughter of the Interior Minister of Berlin, has been abducted from the Natural History Museum. This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment crime: the kidnappers set off a smoke bomb as a distraction. The police swing into action with no time to spare. Emma is diabetic and without her insulin she’ll rapidly fall into a coma and die.
Fortunately, the police have a not-so-secret weapon on their side in the form of forensic psychologist Dr Jasmin Braun (Alexandra Maria Lara). Her job is to interrogate the eight witnesses who were close by at the time of the kidnapping. The more they can tell her, the sooner Emma will be back with her family… or at least, that’s the plan.
The twist is that while Braun is an expert on memory – so much so that Emma’s father asked for her involvement directly – her work is largely theoretical: her entire process is built around working with transcripts, not people (“any personal questioning will falsify the result”). She’s about to be dropped into a whole new world, where her theories will be put to the test like never before.
She’s not exactly on the good side of the local police either, after an opening courtroom prologue where she trashed the credibility of their case in a major crime prosecution. It’s safe to say that while chief Robert Dietz (Ralph Herforth) and detective Nadine Schröder (Ceci Chuh) need her help, they don’t exactly welcome her with open arms.
Each of The Witnesses’ eight half-hour episodes focuses on one of the witnesses, with almost all the series set in the library of the Natural History Museum, which has been converted into an interview room. The first witness is Emma’s Colombian nanny Carla (Nilam Farooq), who left the child alone for a few minutes. Braun quickly discovers that there’s more to her backstory than meets the eye – and perhaps more importantly, she learns that if she leaves this case to the police, their own prejudices and assumptions will lead them down the wrong path, wasting valuable time.
Further witnesses include overly verbose literature student Johanna (Hanna Plaß), a security guard (Rauand Taleb) whose gang connections make him the police’s prime suspect, and a waitress (Milena Tscharntke) with a different spin on things. She’ll also have to face down an expert in her own field in psychology professor Max Felsner (Sylvester Groth), and even her own brother Dominik (Hannes Wegener) – who’s about to emigrate to Australia – has a part to play.
These interrogations aren’t exactly the traditional battle of wills. Braun has to tread carefully, knowing that a leading question or false assumption could inspire her subject to unconsciously tell her what they think she wants to hear, destroying the memories of what really took place. If they even want to tell her the truth in the first place.
She has to gain their trust, get them to open up. Sometimes it’s a casual chat that opens the door, revealing something about herself to get them onside. But it’s always a two-way conversation; despite all her knowledge, she can be just as vulnerable to slip-ups and mistakes, especially when she’s dealing with people with something to hide – or who think they know better.
All the while the clock is ticking, with a young girl’s life at stake. We know from the very start of the series that Braun will come away haunted by a cruel memory. But will it be one based on truth or fiction, success or failure?
The Witnesses is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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