• Dark Woods S1 (Distributor)Source: Distributor
Inspired by a real-life case, unsolved for almost 30 years, ‘Dark Woods’ tracks one cop’s quest to find his sister – or her killer.
Anthony Morris

20 Jan 2022 - 12:58 PM  UPDATED 20 Jan 2022 - 12:58 PM

In the summer of 1989, the sister of a Hamburg police chief disappeared from her house near Göhrde State Forest in Lower Saxony. Coming in the wake of a series of brutal murders in the region that left two couples dead, the case puzzled the local police. Was her disappearance somehow linked to the killings? If so, why was her body missing when the others were swiftly found?

For her brother, it was a nightmare personally and professionally. He desperately wanted to join the search, but as part of the Hamburg police, he had no jurisdiction in Lower Saxony. Instead he reached out to colleagues working the case for help, and for the next thirty-odd years, up to his retirement and beyond, he never let go. Then, after the police had officially all but given up, he and his team finally found themselves on the trail of a suspected serial killer.

It’s an epic story worthy of a best-selling thriller, but German-language series Dark Woods is based on actual events. The missing woman Barbara Neder (Silke Bodenbender) is a version of missing person Birgit Meier; her brother Thomas (Matthias Brandt) is based on Wolfgang Sielaff, the one-time chief of the State Criminal Police of Hamburg; he was an advisor on this series.

The crimes cast a shadow over the region for years, with tourists and locals alike steering clear of the forest – imagine Australia’s Belanglo State Forest in the years after the backpacker murders, only the backpackers were actually murdered in the forest and the murderer was never caught. There was no shortage of theories as to the killer or killers, with clues turning up both locally and internationally. Some said maybe it was a bungled execution-style murder, others suggested the killer might have links to the UK military.

Dark Woods begins before all that, with Barbara living an unhappy life in the (fictional) town of Weesenburg. With a rich husband, a troubled marriage, a teenage daughter and a drinking problem, it’s perhaps not all that hard to see why she might want to vanish. Complicating matters, her husband Robert (Nicholas Ofczarek) is looking to leave her for a younger woman, only Barbara knows a little too much about some of his more disreputable business activities and she’s not willing to just fade away.

One woman possibly fleeing an unhappy marriage wouldn’t usually be a big deal, but two bodies were recently discovered in the nearby forest; the investigation around them soon turned up two more victims. For local detective Anne Bach (Karoline Schuch), the lone woman in a sea of testosterone, it’s her first case and it’s getting bigger every minute. Could Barbara’s disappearance be somehow connected?

As Robert was the last person to see her alive, and also the first person to report her missing, and also someone with both motive and opportunity, it’s little wonder he is the prime suspect. Anne has a different take, and pushes for the investigation to look into creepy cemetery gardener and sex pest Juergen Becker (Hanno Koffler), who had a run-in with Barbara before she vanished. But he has an alibi, and Anne has a bunch of superiors who may not be as good at their job as they think they are.

Before she vanished, Thomas was trying to help Barbara through her problems. Back in Hamburg, he has problems of his own. As the city’s new top cop, he’s in the middle of trying to take down gangster Randow (Roman Knizka) when Barbara vanishes. Even a personal visit to Weesenburg trying to get the locals on the right track doesn’t accomplish much – though he does meet up with Anne, who’s more than happy to work with a cop who seems to have his head screwed on straight.

All the while, the list of suspects keeps growing. Robert certainly seems shifty enough; Juergen is definitely creepy enough. Then there’s the sinister sculptor who lives on the fringes of the forest. When Randow tells Thomas back in Hamburg he might have information, maybe it’s the break in the case he needs… or maybe it’s just a professional criminal playing an angle as part of a plea bargain.

Thirty years is a long time, and one of the things Dark Woods does well is track the lives of those touched by these crimes. Some characters go through big changes; others just become more like themselves. What remains is the horror of these unsolved killings, and the mystery of what happened to Barbara. The very first scene in Dark Woods shows her running through the forest, trying to escape something. It’s an image that haunts the series and everyone in it. 

Dark Woods is now streaming at SBS On Demand.



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