Series Review: German cops hunt a serial killer, and a kidnap victim, in the “Dark Forest (Das Geheimnis des Totenwaldes)”

“Dark Forest” is a German police procedural that is less about tracking down a serial killer than about the ripple effects of random, senseless violence and the pain of not-knowing what’s happened to a loved one who simply vanishes.

There’s mystery in this account of a 30 year-long German case that only dogged persistence by the brother of a missing woman — a chief of the Federal Police, no less — and others came anywhere near resolving.

The German title, “Das Geheimnis des Totenwaldes,” translates as “The Secret Forest of the Dead,” and that’s how the story begins. In 1989 Saxony, a couple having a pleasant walk in the woods in the Istforst is seized and killed. Weeks later it happens again, in almost exactly the same spot.

These is the same forest SS chief Heinrich Himmler was supposedly buried after he committed suicide in 1945, and there are odd bits of art scattered within it — totems. The fellow who carves them becomes one of the suspects as a local PD takes on the case and rookie Anne Bach (Karoline Schuch) asks questions the gruff and dismissive older guys (Karsten Mielke, August Wittgenstein) haven’t thought of.

When they tramp into the woods to see the second crime scenes, one even mutters “Please don’t let this be a serial killer” (in German with English subtitles), as if that’ll help.

They’ve barely had time to wrap their heads around this baffling case when another one is thrown their way. The new chief of the Federal Police in Hamburg, Thomas Bethge (Matthias Brandt) has just comforted his sister, Barbara (Silke Bodenbender) over a husband who is ditching her for a young employee at his printing plant when Barbara disappears.

Barbara, a hard drinker in the best of times, vanished after a party held by neighbors in the same town — Weesenburg. The big city chief finds himself all but begging the locals to get on the stick and keep him informed, as he’s promised their mother he’ll find his sister.

The cases ebb and flow, with first one and then the other stepping into the foreground. Assorted suspects are introduced. But the one who stands out in Barbara’s husband Robert (Nicholas Ofczarek). He appears to have motives and the means to dispose of a body. As the police do what police do — make an educated guess and block out other possibilities, with the media looking Robert’s way as well, even their teenage daughter starts to suspect the worst.

Several things will stand out to a North American viewer, punches that no doubt landed when this showed in Germany last year. The local police are clumsy, a tad inept and belligerent about it. The senior detective, Lohse (Mielke) is condescending and defensive every time Bethge makes a suggestion or asks a question.

The prosecutor, played by Moritz Grove, is openly contemptuous. If it wasn’t for junior detective Gerke’s (Wittgenstein) crush on the cute new cop fresh out of the academy, Bach wouldn’t make any headway in either case.

Hairstyles, clothing and cars change, years pass — and then decades. The “forest” case recedes into the background because nobody in Weesenberg has the wherewithal to pursue it, or even tidy up their earlier sloppiness. Only Bethge’s nagging and frequent visits keep his former pupil, Bach, on his missing sister’s case.

The implication, of course, is that they’re connected.

What “Dark Woods” does best is show the grinding agony of uncertainty. As with a lot of cases like this, “sightings” of the missing woman play into the investigation. A cloud hangs over Robert’s new marriage, which shockingly survives the scrutiny, if not without scars.

The suspects are suspects for a reason. But how would an innocent person respond to the public pressure with the stakes being this high?

Brandt, a sturdy presence in German film (“Killing Stella”) and TV (“Berlin Babylon”) makes a stoic, by-the-book anchor, which Schuch (“Hanna’s Journey”) ably takes us from a rookie who has to shrug off the sexist and less competent superiors who blow off her hunches and ridicule her deductive reasoning, to a middle-aged cop who doesn’t have to take that crap anymore, and who simply will not give up her favorite theory.

The tale is told in such a way as even as we’re seeing impressive DIY escapes by Suspect One, we’re doubting his guilt over this crime even as evidence of others starts to pile up. The first episode teases subtexts and twists that don’t pan out, and frankly the mystery won’t be a mystery if a sharp cop zeroes in on the right leads, motives and acess.

“Dark Woods” is just intriguing enough to hook you, and touching enough to make you feel for Barbara’s family, who are haunted by the horrors she must have faced and the simple act of not-knowing. This disappearance is corrosive and trying and can’t be doing anybody any good.

And we’re even allowed to feel for the accused, who may get something like due process, but not when the temptation to add “media” pressure becomes a crutch the cops can’t resist.

MPA Rating: unrated, violence, sexuality, adult subject matter

Cast: Matthias Brandt, Karoline Schuch, Nicholas Ofczarek, Silke Bodenbender, Karsten Mielke and August Wittgenstein.

Credits: Directed by Sven Bohse, scripted/created by Stefan Kolditz. Now streaming on Topic.

Running time: 6 episodes :42-:50 minutes each

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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