In the summer of 1989, among the thick trees of Göhrde State Forest in Lower Saxony, Germany, two couples were brutally murdered within a few weeks of each other. Shortly after, a woman named Birgit Meier disappeared without a trace from her home. Were the events connected? What happened to Birgit’s body? The case raised far more questions than answers and would go on to confound law enforcement for almost 30 years, including Birgit’s own brother, a high-ranking federal police officer. In a short span of time, the normally quiet town was rocked to the core, with reverberations that would last for decades.
In director Sven Bohse’s narrative adaptation of the true crime, “Dark Woods,” the events and characters are portrayed with both authenticity and cinematic finesse. The series follows the search for Barbara Neder (who is based on Birgit Meier) by her brother, Thomas, and a young rookie cop named Anne. Because of the duration of the events, the story was equally compelling and challenging to adapt. It would take someone particularly adroit to execute it with accuracy and artistry. Bohse did just that with his gripping retelling of the twisted events of summer 1989.
Topic sat down with Bohse to discuss the process of filming, from enlisting Birgit’s real brother as a story advisor to achieving a realistic aging effect for the characters. Get an exclusive glimpse at the making of “Dark Woods” and then be sure to watch the series, only on Topic.
How did “Dark Woods” come about?
I was asked by producer Marc Conrad and commissioning editor Christian Granderath if I would like to share my vision for this story. I was provided with a press folder with various articles about the true case. There was no script or fictional text yet. Still, the true story was so gripping, I was instantly hooked. The ideas I shared happened to match the ones of writer Stefan Kolditz. So we all had a common base to incorporate the true events into a fictional story. I was involved in the script development almost from the first hour.
What attracted you to retelling this true story?
Firstly, this story has amazing characters, almost too good to be real. A detective who struggles to solve his most important case, who has to fulfill his destiny or be defeated by his own failure—this is the kind of conflict you would be happy to have in any of your stories. And it applies to all the characters in the series. They are all loaded with interesting and complex stories, yet you‘ll have a strong empathic connection to them.
Secondly, the epic arc over 30 years—the impact a crime has not only directly after it’s committed, but also decades later—was a new perspective on the crime genre for me. A story about the victims and the devastating effects of a crime on relationships and family—that was an interesting angle for me.
Why did you choose a true crime story rather than strictly fiction?
Because this story was better than fiction. The fact that all of this really happened gave us the freedom to just tell it. In a fictional project, people wouldn‘t have had the guts to greenlight the series, because it would have seemed too unreal.
How closely did you stick to the real-life case of Birgit Meier?
We were in close contact to the real persons involved in the case. It was a matter of respect, to stick to the real facts as much as possible, but we also agreed upon the fact that we would have to fictionalize certain characters and elements of the true story. But overall, I would say that we stayed pretty close to the real events.
Did you follow the case before you decided to make this series?
As I was a kid back in ‘89, I hadn’t heard about it. But in Northern Germany, many people my age can remember that there was this fear of a mysterious Dark Woods Killer, which spread across the region for many years.
Birgit’s brother, Wolfgang Sielaff, whom Thomas Bethge is based on, was an advisor on the project. What was that process like? Do you think the series helped to give him more closure?
I had a basic idea of what Wolfgang Sielaff had gone through. And of course he provided enormous insight on the criminal details and the emotional side. Having him was a treasure. But I wouldn‘t dare to guess if it really meant a relief to see his own story on screen. Wolfgang Sielaff is a little different from Bethge. He is a sensitive, brilliant criminalist who always seemed to have a healthy perspective on what has happened to him. He decided to share his story with us, but he also acknowledged that he wasn’t exactly going to see himself being portrayed on screen. It was his story told through somebody else's eyes. But in the end, I was really happy to receive a message from him after the series was aired. He was happy that his story had been told, even though it was not a depiction of his own perspective.
How did you achieve the moody, atmospheric quality that really does the title “Dark Woods” justice?
As a filmmaker, I like to create worlds that support the atmosphere of a story. I followed a very clear concept, developed with the DP, Michael Schreitel, as well as the set design and the costume department. It included choosing anamorphotic lenses and scope format for shooting, in order to create a more intense and cinematic look. We had color codes for every set and decade and the choice and set decoration of every location was very well considered. I usually put a lot of effort in finding suitable locations, because it‘s half the deal if you already have them for shooting. Every place has its own magic. If it fits with the vision of the project, it‘s a big win for everybody. So long story short: it took a lot of preparation and effort to achieve the final results.
How did you achieve the realistic aging effect of the characters as the story progresses over almost three decades?
I was lucky to have met some of the most talented makeup artists, Jeannette Latzelsberger and Gregor Eckstein, in previous projects. Jeannette just has an incomparable feel for characters and style, while Gregor is an incredible artist in creating realistic prosthetics. We exchanged a lot of thoughts at the beginning of the project. We even made our shooting schedule according to the best conditions for special effects makeup to achieve the best results. For example, the Bethge character had seven different silicone prosthetics glued on his face every day. That‘s why we decided to shoot all these scenes not in summer, but in autumn, to prevent the makeup from being affected by high temperatures. It was a tough ride, mainly for the actors, who spent four+ hours every morning in makeup. But it was absolutely worth it.
Despite the fact that this is a German series, was “Dark Woods” influenced by Nordic Noir?
I think in this case, it is just Northern Germany Noir.
What are some other true crime cases that intrigue you?
There is a lot going on in the real world, most of which is stranger than fiction. For the moment, I would pick the Wirecard scandal in Germany, the case of Jens Söring, and the mysterious disappearance of a young child in Germany named Peggy. Just Google it. It‘s amazing.