ntv.de: What does uncertainty do to a person? Especially when it comes to the disappearance of a loved one.
Wolfgang Sielaff: That was a bad time for all of us. Relatives and dependents are ultimately victims too! When a serious crime strikes a family, life is turned upside down. My missing sister’s daughter still suffers from suspicion of her father. To this day, you cannot even make up your mind to publicly rehabilitate my brother-in-law, who was branded a murderer for a quarter of a century.
How has this uncertainty affected your life with other people? In spite of everything, we see a harmonious marriage and a loving son in the film.
Sielaff: We as a family were unable to come to terms with the overt crime and deal with it. My mother hoped for 20 years that the door would open and her daughter would come in. In desperation, she made two suicide attempts.
How did the uncertainty affect you in your job?
Sielaff: As the head of the LKA, I had no direct influence on the investigations in another federal state. At first I had no doubt that the Lüneburg public prosecutor and police were doing a sensible job.
But the colleagues in Lower Saxony were not very helpful …
Sielaff: I assumed that an effort would be made in the investigation out of collegiality. But that was not the case!
Have you blamed yourself and others for something, even if not officially?
Sielaff: Shortly after my retirement, in 2003, I had access to the files at the Lüneburg public prosecutor and was shocked: I learned that there had been no further investigations into my sister’s disappearance. I was also told that all evidence had been destroyed. A serious mistake! It was clear to me that I had to do everything I could to clarify the fate of my sister.
Sielaff: I found companions who supported me. It was our aim to collect evidence and facts that would force the Lüneburg police and public prosecutor to start new investigations.
How did you react when you were told that there would be a film and a documentary about the disappearance of your sister and thus also about your life?
Sielaff: The film is fictional with many deliberate deviations from the real events. But the core events are reflected correctly. I decided to go along with the filming because finally there is also a story about the crime victims.
Do you see yourself in Matthias Brandt? In his representation?
Sielaff: Matthias Brandt acts differently as LKA boss in the film than I do. I myself have been much more active, more persistent and not at all resigned.
Mrs. Schuch, You play a young policewoman – what attracted you to the role?
Karoline Schuch: The script immediately triggered me. I just wanted to read into the first part quickly and then I practically breathed it all away. It really grabbed me. And this feeling persisted until the last day of shooting. Just the fact that we shot in these different times, in different looks, it was like a journey.
Life tells the most beautiful, but also the most terrible stories. I was very scared watching the film …
Schuch: Are you a rich widow (laughs)?
Not yet …
Schuch: Well, that would of course be the loot scheme. Joking aside, while we were filming I spoke to people from the area who, as children, didn’t go to the woods for years or let their children play on the streets.
You respond to the Göhrde murders …
Schuch: Yes, that’s really terrible, people go into the forest to have a picnic. And are murdered in cold blood.
Sielaff: The questions about possible connections with homicides against women and girls in the Lüneburg region and about the Göhrde murders of 1989 were actually increasing! My team and I were convinced that there was a link between these murders and my sister’s disappearance. That has also turned out to be true.
When filming a true story, you have to take into account the real people who are still alive. How hard was that?
Schuch: It was a big task to get that legally correct. But it’s best to bring the people who were affected by it on board, and then you can respond to it in a completely different way. I found that a total enrichment.
The shooting was definitely very disturbing …
Sielaff: There was a major failure by the police and the public prosecutor at the time. I have never come across such a level of disinterest, omissions, neglect and wrong decisions. After the suicide of the suspect I was suspect, it was no longer possible to investigate him. Nevertheless, the termination of the proceedings was wrong because there were indications of an accomplice. The investigations against him should have been continued even then. I only found out about the termination of the proceedings ten years later.
The way the police worked was completely different than it is today, I guess.
Schuch: (laughs) Oh yes, witnesses were still being heard on the phone, unthinkable today!
Sielaff: Yes, Kurt-Werner Wichmann, the murderer, for example, had been informed by the police that they were at his home. He fled. It quickly became clear why. Weapons, ammunition, chains, cannulas and sedatives were found in a secret room, like a pharaoh’s grave. There was blood on a handcuff. A buried car was found in the garden, apparently used for a crime.
Ms. Schuch, you play Anne Bach, a police psychologist …
Schuch: My role is actually more of a synthesis of several people, but yes, in the third part it is particularly oriented towards the psychology of the core team …
And you ran into locked doors quite often …
Schuch: Yes, but not only Anne Bach. At that time you failed because of hierarchies, not only on the lower floors, even Mr. Sielaff, the LKA boss, who bit his teeth in Hamburg.
You worked closely with him on the shoot …
Schuch: Fortunately. Because the film is primarily about him, the tragedy of his life. After his retirement, Mr. Sielaff put together a team on his own to finally clear up the disappearance of his sister. He was regularly on the set and was in close contact with the scriptwriter Stefan Kolditz. It was so important to represent the perspective of the bereaved. I mainly exchanged views with the police psychologist who was part of his core team.
In the second part of the “Totenwald” a profiler from the USA comes into play – that wasn’t there before in Germany, right?
Schuch: Exactly. Up until that point, murderers were just bad people who had to be locked up, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that people questioned why a person could become a murderer or serial killer, and then tried to apply the knowledge to, for example, further murders prevent. That’s why I fall on deaf ears with my older colleagues in the film, it started little by little.
Sielaff: But every qualified criminalist should have been suspicious at the time. However, the investigators very quickly settled on my brother-in-law as the suspect. Wichmann came into focus after just six weeks. His life was paved with criminal acts, for example he had spent several years in prison for rape. During the police interrogation he lied and became involved in contradictions. The suspicious situation should have triggered a search at Wichmann’s. But nothing happened.
Nobody listened to gut instinct, feminine intuition.
Schuch: That wasn’t taken seriously. But Anne Bach learned during her studies that the police investigation is about setting up several theories and then working through them continuously. That is also a way of dealing with a culture of error – to say that it did not work now, we have to take a different approach. So a simply normal procedure is dismissed as a waste of time and stupidity.
Sielaff: If you had acted accordingly, my sister would have been found just a few weeks after she disappeared and Wichmann would have been arrested as a suspect. That would have saved us a quarter of a century of uncertainty, heartache, and despair. The public prosecutor was also completely disinterested.
You have to fight a man’s world in the film, Ms. Schuch. Do you think anything has changed in the police force?
Schuch: I think you have to see that in the context of the time, and I also believe that things have changed completely now. I don’t think women are still under-represented in the police force. And I firmly assume that a lot has changed since the MeToo debate at the latest.
But girls or women are bitchy when they are persistent, boys or men are assertive, even if they want or mean the same thing.
Schuch: You can not imagine how often I have been warned about “exhausting” colleagues – most of them were just about the matter. With men, the same behavior is usually waved through, that’s “art”! (laughs)
The interview was conducted by Sabine Oelmann
To be seen on December 2nd, 5th and 9th (followed by a documentary “Eiskalte Spur – The true story of the dead forest”) on ARD