Television series that were lucky enough to debut in 2020 were the beneficiaries of a population stuck at home, looking for things to watch. It wasn’t just in the United States, where shows such as Schitt’s Creek, Ted Lasso and The Queen’s Gambit, among many others, soared in popularity, but all around the world, desperate and bored audiences craved new stories and new shows. In Germany, one of the most popular shows that aired during the pandemic was a six-part drama series, Dark Woods, which was the most-watched show when it aired last November and December. Now, North American audiences will get a chance to see it as it will be released on the new streaming service, Topic, starting May 13.
Dark Woods is a true crime drama series based on the real events surrounding a string of murders in 1989 that went unsolved for 30 years. After two pairs of couples are found murdered in the same forest in a rural area of northern Germany within a few weeks of each other in the summer of 1989, a massive police effort begins to root out the killer. During this same period, Barbara Neder (Silke Bodenbender), a local divorcee, goes missing after a night of partying. Distracted and consumed with investigating the double murders, Neder’s disappearance doesn’t rate a high priority for local police, until the arrival of a high-ranking police officer from Hamburg, who happens to be Neder’s brother, Thomas Bethge (Matthias Brandt). Bethge is out of his jurisdiction, but he can’t help but get involved with the investigation of Barbara’s disappearance, and gets some help from local police detective Anne Bach (Karoline Schuch), who herself feels frozen out by the old boy’s club in the small-town police station and welcomes the chance to work with Bethge, a decorated and highly regarded national police official, who had made a name for himself by taking on the mob.
Bach and Bethge investigate various leads for Barbara’s disappearance, with most eyes on Barbara’s ex-husband, local businessman Robert Neder (Nicholas Ofczarek), who was getting squeezed by his ex-wife financially and was looking to extract himself from her, so he could marry his much younger girlfriend. But, because Barbara’s body is never found, there is no direct evidence linking Robert to Barbara’s disappearance. Still, suspicions linger, even as they investigate other possible suspects. Because a body is never found, Barbara’s family, especially Bethge and their mother, are haunted by the unending agony of wondering if Barbara is alive or dead. Bethge promises his mother and himself that he will never give up looking for Barbara or investigating her vanishing, and he keeps his promise as he continues to search for clues to her whereabouts for the next 30 years.
Meanwhile, the simultaneous investigations into the double murders in the forest reveal multiple suspects, but they hit similar brick walls in their pursuit of the killer or killers and those murders also continue to go unsolved for nearly 30 years.
While there are so many elements to this series that are familiar, especially to American audiences, who have a particular fondness for drama series about murders and serial killers, there is also so much about this series that is unique compared to what American audiences are used to. The series doesn’t need to rely on some of the tropes that we are familiar with, like the peculiar cop with their own issues or the weird populace of townspeople who have their own hidden stories and agendas. Dark Woods relies on its strength of story and the well drawn-out and integrated threads of differing stories that work together to paint a complete picture. Several different theories for the murders and Barbara’s disappearance emerge, each one seemingly legitimate, each one taking investigators down different roads, a 30-year maze of dead ends. The story holds it audience through a slow build, a labyrinth of police work and series of suspects, sucking the audience into its web, sprinkling just enough clues to keep us engaged at just enough of a distance to keep us wanting more.
Director Sven Bohse and writers Stefan Kolditz and Katja Wenzel spin the tale out over six episodes and thirty years in a deliberate and subtle way. Bethge is an unlikely hero, a policeman with integrity who insists on following the rules, an average guy who just happens to be good at his job. The audience sees how rattled he is when confronted with a crime that is not only personal, but seemingly unsolvable, and his relentless dedication to overcoming its challenges is the anchor that holds the series together. Brandt is exceptional at modulating his emotions and keeping himself together, while enduring horrific nightmares that cause his wife to seriously worry about his well-being.
But what makes Dark Woods the complete experience is how it not only tracks Bethge’s life over the thirty years of investigating, but also how it tracks the other characters, including the various suspects and investigators. Bach makes the biggest leap, from a naïve, small-town rookie cop to a top national figure in her own right. But, even with all her success, she, like Bethge, just cannot shake the unsolved murders and Neder’s disappearance, and keeps coming back to it, determined to find justice for Barbara and her family.
While the series may have fewer bells and whistles than American audiences are used to, there is more than enough tension, action and mystery to sustain it over the six episodes. The production values are excellent, as the moody and dark cinematography are reminiscent of other crime series like The Killing or Mare of Easttown. But, lest we forget, this is a German series, which means it is not as showy or as explosive as what we may be used to, but it makes up for it with a calculated and engaging story, likable characters and a mystery that is sustained until the very end. If crime dramas are your thing and you don’t mind subtitles, Dark Woods is highly recommended viewing, even if you are no longer stuck inside.