German true-crime mystery drama Dark Woods tells the story of murders, a missing woman, and a decades-long search for the truth.
Inspired by actual events, Dark Woods (Das Geheimnis Des Totenwaldes) follows one man’s search for his missing sister for nearly three decades, and the devastating effects her disappearance and the police investigation have on her family.
The main cast includes Matthias Brandt (Silent Hunt, Babylon Berlin) as Thomas Bethge, a high-ranking police officer; Karoline Schuch (Tatort: Cologne, Luther and I) as Anne Bach, a whip-smart police detective; Silke Bodenbender (Tatort, We Were Just Playing) as Barbara Neder, Thomas’s sister; August Wittgenstein (Das Boot, Berlin Dance School) as Jan Gerke, Bach’s police partner; and Nicholas Ofczarek (Pagan Peak, The Team) as Robert Neder, Barbara’s husband.
The drama opens with a shot of a woman in a white dress running (scared) in a forest. The woman is Barbara Neder, and the vision is part of the same recurring nightmare that Thomas Bethge has had since his sister vanished without a trace in 1989. It’s now the mid-2010s, and the dream still startles him awake in a cold sweat.
1989: a life-changing year for some, a life-ending one for others…
At roughly the same time that Thomas, “the most successful, exemplary policeman in Hamburg,” is promoted to head of the Federal Police in the German port city, Anne joins the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the local police in the (fictional) small city of Weesenburg in Lower Saxony, where she is the lone Jane Tennison-like detective in a sea of male colleagues. Anne’s first case involves two skeletons found in the Iseforst. A further search brings police to the recently-deceased bodies of two more victims. Could this be the work of a serial killer?
Meanwhile, Barbara has been going off the rails with booze, as her marriage to Robert has gone sour. He has been having an affair with Lisa (Anne Werner, Berlin Dance School), an employee at his printing company, and now he wants a divorce. But Barbara isn’t having it and takes matters into her own hands. Then she disappears.
Now the Weesenburg CID team have a missing person case to solve in addition to the two double murders. Given the situation with their relationship, Robert is the prime suspect in Barbara’s disappearance. Statistically, this makes sense, but Anne also believes the police should investigate Juergen Becker (Hanno Koffler, Beat), a gardener who was seen with Barbara before she vanished. However, her boss, Lohse (Karsten Mielke, Deutschland 86), and prosecutor Leest (Moritz Grove, The Reader) are content with Juergen’s statement and alibi, and maintain the focus on Robert.
For years, make that decades, there is no progress on the murder or missing person cases, yet Thomas doesn’t give up on trying to find out what happened to Barbara — not even after her case is closed. He had promised his mother that he would find her. With the help of Anne and his longtime colleague and friend, Frank Behringer (Andreas Lust, The Typist), as well as an unexpected source, Thomas finally does — solving the case of his sister’s disappearance nearly 30 years after it was launched.
While watching Dark Woods, I was reminded of 54 Hours, another German true-crime drama in which the failings of the police resulted in horrible outcomes. In this case, they include a killer’s escape and unnecessary deaths, and three decades of the Bethge and Neder families being haunted by the mystery of Barbara’s disappearance — causing mental health issues for Thomas and, for Robert, the dark cloud of being condemned as a murderer by the police and the public and the breakdown in his relationship with his daughter, his only child.
I had to wonder if the Weesenburg police and head prosecutor, all men, were as dismissive as they were toward the suggestions made by Thomas and Anne because of some subconscious need to prove themselves as being as capable as the big city cop and to lord their power over the female detective. (There is a female prosecutor in Weesenburg, too; while she is more open and willing to listen and to work with Anne, she also seems to be the victim of workplace harassment.)
Armchair psychology aside, members of the cast deliver fine performances all around — especially Karoline Schuch, whose Anne Bach matures from a quick-witted junior investigator with no standing in the department, into a fierce detective with more balls than her male colleagues in Weesenburg and then into the head of her own department (presumably crisis negotiation, based on one scene) in Hamburg. Also worth noting is Hanno Koffler, whose portrayal of the controlling gardener totally creeped me out.
For all intents and purposes, Bach is the only main character to show growth over the course of the series (unless you count Gerke finally growing a pair and connecting to his sense of decency). Thomas and Robert are, essentially, emotionally crippled by the lack of closure in Barbara’s disappearance.
Costars include Jenny Schily (The Valley) as Marianne Bethge, Thomas’s wife; Hildegard Schmahl (We Children from Bahnhof Zoo) as Erika Bethge, Thomas’s mother; and Janina Fautz (Wilsberg) as the young Theresa Neder, Robert’s daughter.
There is no fluff, no filler in Dark Woods, which allows the story to be told in six easily-bingeable episodes of under an hour each — which I totally appreciate! Check out the show when you get a chance.
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