Just what is it about the true crime genre that makes it so compelling? Whether it’s our fascination with the liars, thieves and killers that populate it, our disbelief at the acts of deceit and evil that they have committed, or the simple fact that all of it has a basis in reality, we just can’t seem to get enough.
From documentaries detailing some of history’s most horrific or puzzling crimes, to films inspired by them, this true crime collection takes a look at the criminals at the centre of it all. Here’s just some of what’s in the collection.
The accused arsonist
It’s destructive and incredibly difficult to prove, but it’s the calculated intent behind the crime of an arsonist that shocks beyond all else. Though the car and passenger ferry at the centre of Danish documentary Scandinavian Star had experienced more than its fair share of fire-related events in its short history, there was something different about the fatal blaze that occurred on the night of 7 April 1990.
One hundred and fifty-nine people lost their lives when, midway through its trip from Oslo to Frederikshavn, the ferry erupted in flames. So began an investigation in the wake of the tragedy that saw numerous theories about its cause put forward. Was this simply another unfortunate accident? Or was it the work of an experienced arsonist?
Through conversations with the victims’ families and those on the front line of the case, each gut-wrenching episode of the six-part series follows the search for answers and the quest to name the individual responsible for “the crime of the century”.
Six-part documentary series Scandinavian Star is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
The drug lord
Unlike many others of its kind, there’s no search to find the perpetrator in English-language documentary The Escobar Effect: when your subject is arguably the world’s most notorious narco-terrorist, blame is easy to place. The lasting impact of Colombian drug lord and “king of cocaine” Pablo Escobar, however, is less clear. He remains the wealthiest criminal in history, and died with the blood of more than four thousand people on his hands, but the far-reaching consequences of his cocaine trade certainly didn’t end with his death.
From the hired killers who were the backbone of his underage army, to the remote communities where he based his cocaine labs, and the farmers in these areas who had relied on the cocoa economy before his rise to power, the documentary reveals that the people of Peru and Colombia continue to experience the lingering effects of Escobar’s cartel. But is it ever possible to know the extent of his crimes? And how did this ‘Robin Hood’ of Colombia manage to endear himself to many of its people?
The Escobar Effect is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
The powerful mobster
Many of the best crime dramas have their basis in reality, and there’s more than a sliver of truth to French offering The Connection. Academy award-winning actor Jean Dujardin is the thriller’s protagonist, Pierre Michel, a police magistrate on a life-threatening mission to hunt down and bring to justice the man at the centre of one of France’s most powerful drug syndicates. It’s an ambitious task, but Michel is willing to do whatever it takes.
Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) might be a mobster, but he’s also the powerful mastermind of the scheme, and getting to him is the key to cracking this heroin ring once and for all. But doing so will demand more of Michel than he realises, and as he delves deeper into Zampa’s world, he becomes acquainted with the danger and brutality that defines it. Set amidst the bustle and retro glamour of 1970s Marseilles, the film is a Euro-centric take on the familiar story of the French Connection, blurring the lines between good and evil, man and criminal at every turn.
The Connection is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
The forest killer
A missing woman, a 30-year-old mystery, and a cop who refuses to give in. The story behind German crime mystery Dark Woods ticks all the boxes for an epic thriller, but there is one important box that gives it that something extra: it’s based on a true story. Real-life chief of the state criminal police Wolfgang Sielaff’s onscreen counterpart is Thomas Bethge (Matthias Brandt), a police officer who has spent thirty years pushing for the 1989 murder of two couples in the forests of Northern Germany to be solved.
His determination to find the forest killer isn’t entirely fuelled by a selfless pursuit of justice, however. Barbara Neder (Silke Bodenbender), the fictionalised depiction of missing person Birgit Meier, disappeared around the same time as the murders took place and Thomas is sure the two crimes are linked. Local detective Anne Bach (Karoline Schuch) has her own ideas about who the perpetrator might be, but Thomas isn’t convinced. Whatever happens, though, he has to bring the mysterious murderer to justice, even if it has been decades since Barbara vanished without a trace: she is his sister, after all.
Six-part drama series Dark Woods is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
The cultural terrorists
In 1986, when a piece of Picasso’s famous oil painting series The Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria, those behind the crime were more than happy for the world to know what they had done. Unlike the criminals at the centre of many other true crime documentaries, there were no obvious victims to speak of, and the group who called themselves “Australia’s Cultural Terrorists” had no plans to let anyone else take the blame. The art heist played out in daily headlines across the country, with the question of who was behind the theft taking a back seat to a far more interesting question: why?
Host and celebrated journalist Marc Fennell follows the incredible story of the painting’s disappearance across the four parts of documentary series Framed, recounting every bizarre detail: from the letters to then Victorian premier Race Matthews demanding funding for the arts, to accusations of an inside job, and an anonymous tip-off that would lead investigators to a discovery inside a railway station locker that nobody expected.
Four-part documentary series Framed is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
The violent predator
When people go missing, those left behind are faced with the possibility that they may never know what happened to their loved one. In some cases, it could be argued that it’s better not to know. For eighteen-year-old Jessica (Sophie Breyer) in gritty French drama series Laetitia, life is tumultuous from the moment she discovers her twin sister’s scooter abandoned on the road outside their family home.
Based on the events surrounding the abduction of French teenager Laetitia Perrais in 2011, this fictionalised account wastes no time hunting for the violent predator responsible. Even though the police arrest a suspect in record time, the truth of what happened to Laetitia (Marie Colomb) proves much more elusive. As the hours before she vanished are replayed, the trauma of the twins’ childhood comes to the fore, and the ways the system failed both the victim and offender are shown to be crucial to Laetitia’s disappearance.
Six-part drama series Laetitia is now streaming at SBS On Demand.