A woman in a white dress runs through a forest in which the fog hangs. She runs over ferns and moss. She turns around, a horrified look, a scream. With these pictures a man in pajamas wakes up from a thunderstorm night, drenched in sweat.
Constantly these nightmares, they won’t let go of him, the retired Hamburg police chief, whose name is Thomas Bethge in the film and Wolfgang Sielaff in real life, played by an incredibly good Matthias Brandt. He shuffles into the bathroom. “I should have found her,” he says. This is how this almost real thriller of the year begins.
The secret of the forest of the dead The ARD three-part series is called. “Freely based on true events”, one reads in the credits and later under “Specialist advice” two names, including Wolfgang Sielaff’s. This is the exaggeration and condensation of a piece of German criminal history. It is the slightly alienated version of the Göhrde murders, which are among the most famous and most puzzling crimes of the republic. And it is the very personal case of Wolfgang Sielaff, who as Thomas Bethge in the form of Matthias Brandt is looking for his missing sister.
“Reality is often more crazy than anything you can think of”
The first took a double show of strength. Fiction and reality, all in all more than six hours. The feature film, a brilliantly cast masterpiece, lasts four and a half hours in three episodes. A thriller whose end you already know at the beginning, but which is still more exciting than any crime scene or other outflow of the crime tide. Because, according to the director Sven Bohse: “Reality is often more wacky than anything you can think of.” A three-part ARD documentary with archive recordings and contemporary witnesses like the real Wolfgang Sielaff is devoted to the whole reality of the Göhrde murders. Title: Ice-cold trail.
Summer 1989. There is panic in the north-east of the Federal Republic because of two double murders in the Göhrde state forest, not far from Lüneburg. Even today it can get scary when you drive from Hamburg towards Wendland and pass the area. At least two lovers were shot in this forest back then, with some certainty by the cemetery gardener Kurt-Werner W., four corpses lie in the undergrowth. In 2017, in an assembly pit under Ws. Garage, Wolfgang Sielaff and his helpers came across the bones of Birgit Meier, née Sielaff – almost three decades after their disappearance.
Sielaff headed the Hamburg State Criminal Police Office and was Deputy Police President until 2003. A successful civil servant, tried and tested in the struggle with the milieu. In the investigation of the Göhrde mystery and the official search for his sister, however, he was not allowed to participate. Responsible is the Kripo Lüneburg, Lower Saxony. But their interest was limited, and the suspicion was obvious. The perpetrator, there is no longer any doubt, was Kurt-Werner W. He could have killed even more people. But W. never stood before the court and can’t tell anything more, he hanged himself in custody in 1993. A quarter of a century later, as a pensioner and on his own, Sielaff came across the remains of his sister.
The alleged murderer is a handsome guy with a cold look
Again and again the camera flies over the treetops of the Dead Forest, the names and locations are changed in the film. The Göhrde becomes Iseforst, Lüneburg zu Weesenburg, Birgit Meier to Birgit Neder (Silke Bodenbender), her brother Harald to Robert Neder (Nicholas Ofczarek), the alleged murderer W. to Jürgen Becker (Hanno Koffler), the abysmal handsome with the cold Look. There is the helpful colleague Anne Bach (Karoline Schuch). The real LKA leader Sielaff is transformed into the LKA leader Bethge, embodied by Matthias Brandt, luckily.
Brandt and Sielaff met before filming, the actor and the former police officer. Matthias Brandt knows at least the fictional world of crime well, he was a TV commissioner. He didn’t want to play the real Sielaff. He wanted to create his own character “that you hope will be conclusive,” as he said. This succeeds, aging included, because at the beginning the creation Bethge is in her late forties and in the end in her mid seventies, if you take Sielaff as a yardstick. Brandt had to put on the mask for hours each time for episode three.
He is the quiet and now depressed criminalist whom the mystery of Birgit brings to sleep. Brandt is “different from me” in the film, says Sielaff in an ARD interview, his last for the time being. “I myself have been much more active, persistent and not at all resigned.” But every viewer suspects the pain one way or another. And the anger against colleagues from the police and public prosecutor’s office in the neighborhood. “I have never seen such a degree of disinterest, omissions, failures and wrong decisions,” says Sielaff. It is the chronicle of a ghostly government failure.
It is unbelievable that the investigators should have the house and property of W., in The secret of the forest of the dead Jürgen Becker called, at the time they did not rummage through the forest, ignored traces and had evidence destroyed. Although a buried sports car with a corpse smell and a hidden room with weapons, violent porn, cannulas and swastikas had already been excavated during a search in 1993 before the suspect’s escape and suicide. Although his criminal record was long, he could have been involved in other crimes. A handcuff with traces of blood that had been seized from him had been with the Hannover Medical School for 27 years before it was discovered in 2016 that it was Birgit’s blood. In the film, the word “V-Mann” is used in connection with the alleged Göhrde murderer. And what about his younger brother, his shy neighbor in the film, who could know everything and not reveal anything? Is he the accomplice, a possible accomplice?
The dramaturgy in the Totenwald deviates from what is known from the original Göhrde murders
In 2018 a new “Investigation Group Göhrde” had W.’s former garden plowed and unearthed car parts, handbags, ladies’ shoes, binoculars, purses, knives and other excavations. 400 found objects, the network is still being searched for clues. In 2018 it also became clear that Birgit Meier, who is in the film Birgit Neder, died from bullets. That was the result of the autopsy.
The dramaturgy in Totenwald differs from what is known about the original Göhrde murders, it is a feature film. For example, an imprisoned neighborhood big shows up in the police headquarters and shoots a public prosecutor, his wife and himself, what actually happened, but as early as 1986. “Only the freedom of narrative makes it possible to tell the generality behind the drama,” says Stefan Kolditz, who wrote the script. But in its essence, the plot is as it was or could have been. And the focus, that is the great achievement, is not a serial killer. It’s all about the victims. These are also those who for 28 years had no certainty about their mother, daughter, sister, ex-wife. Birgit’s ex-husband, Sielaff’s alias Bethge’s brother-in-law, was even suspected by the public prosecutor himself. Martyrdom for the family.
When asked to talk to Wolfgang Sielaff, he kindly declines, he is no longer available for public appointments. He had hoped to distance himself when his sister Birgit was buried in November 2017. But Sielaff notices how the past affects him. “After a long time of waiting, we can now be certain that Birgit’s fate has been completely resolved,” said the obituary. “It finally enables us to say goodbye to Birgit Meier.” Birgit Meier, born in 1948 as Birgit Sielaff, murdered in August 1989. Discovered in September 2017 by her brother, Hamburg’s retired police chief.
The secret of the forest of the dead, The First, 8:15 p.m.