Yup, it’s that time of month again: the new Netflix true-crime release-palooza. You could set your watch to the regularity of these drops on the streaming service. If Christmas romances and Black Fridays aren’t your post-turkey day entertainment preferences, then there’s always murder. Hey, I’m not here to judge.
On 14th August, 1989, Birgit Meier was supposed to meet her estranged husband to discuss the terms of their impending divorce. That night, the 40-year-old photographer disappeared. Her daughter Yasmine went to her house and found the place empty with her car still in the garage. Meier’s brother Wolfgang Sielaff, then the head of the criminal investigation department in Hamburg, immediately rang the alarm bells and began treating the disappearance as a potential crime. There was no evidence of wrongdoing, but the authorities had no answers to explain Meier’s mysterious absence. As with most cases like this, the suspicion initially fell upon Meier’s ex-husband, but that ended quickly, and the case was all but abandoned for decades. The potential culprit lay hidden for years, despite the fact that they had already interviewed him.
At that time, Lüneburg the picturesque town in Northern Germany where Meier lived, was in the grip of terror. In the summer of that year, two separate couples were found murdered in the Göhrde State Forest in Lower Saxony. That case could not help but overwhelm the authorities, and the Meier family felt that Birgit’s disappearance was not treated seriously enough as a result. Speculation was rife that the two cases were connected but the police ruled it out at first, a move that Meier’s brother would later declare to be highly irresponsible.
Wolfgang Sielaff never gave up and spent the majority of his retirement trying to close the increasingly cold case. The main suspect was Kurt-Werner Wichmann, a cemetery gardener who Meier had met at a party. She had even mentioned him in a phone call to a friend mere hours before her disappearance. Despite his prior criminal record and extremely flimsy alibi for the night of Meier’s disappearance, the police did not dig deeper into Wichmann’s claims. Wichmann had spent time in a young offenders’ institution after threatening a woman with a knife and trying to strangle her. He also had a history of physical and sexual abuse, as well as charges of threatening others with weapons. In 1970, he was sentenced to five-and-a-half years of juvenile punishment for rape.
In 1993, thanks to a new prosecutor, charges of the suspected murder of Birgit Meier were brought against him. Wichmann’s house was searched by police. Investigators found weapons, stun guns, handcuffs, sedatives, and a secret room with a soundproof door. On his property, they found a buried car. Yet no warrant was issued for his arrest, and he fled the area. He was arrested in Heilbronn when he was involved in a traffic accident, with weapons, night vision goggles, and maps of Germany found in his car. Several days later, Kurt-Werner Wichmann died by suicide, hanging himself in his prison cell.
Birgit Meier’s remains were recovered in 2017 under the concrete floor of a garage of a house previously occupied by Wichmann on the outskirts of Lüneburg. Forensic reports revealed that she had been shot, and Wichmann was named as the likely perpetrator. It’s believed that Wichmann may have been involved in dozens of unsolved cases throughout Germany.
There’s something numbingly meta about binging so many of these series, week after week for your critical pleasure. How many times can you watch all these separate shows, each filled with details on botched investigations and police ineptitude, before you join the dots and reconsider the whitewashed image of altruistic justice? Whether it’s South Korea or Spain or Germany or America, these stories are all bound together in smothering fashion by these repeated instances of institutional failure. This isn’t something that each series dedicates much time to, however. Dig Deeper doesn’t dwell much on the sad reality that Meier’s death was only solved because her brother was a police officer who spent his retirement doing what his former colleagues would not. This evident pain, deep-rooted and inextricably tangled among the system’s make-up, is given a brief mention before the narrative rushes back to the more lurid aspects of the crime. That might be a focus on gawking over real-life images of violence or lovingly recreating events with the aesthetic vision of a perfume commercial.
Dig Deeper cannot help but follow the visual pattern of its Netflix true-crime contemporaries (I swear all these directors are handed a style guide before shooting starts.) Meier’s issues with alcohol abuse are recreated in a way that wouldn’t look out of place in a music video, while Sielaff is filmed driving pensively around Germany for no seeming reason beyond the cliched desire to add tension to the running time. One moment involving elevators seems like it should be in a Talking Heads video more than an investigation into a potential serial killer.
One thing Dig Deeper does well is reveal the difficult crossover of being both the investigator and the family of the victim. Sielaff gets an insight into the case that only someone of his authority could have, and in his retirement-era work, the extent of the police’s incompetence is fully shown. Crime scenes weren’t searched, key evidence was ignored, and too much time was spent focusing on Meier’s husband despite nothing tying him to Meier’s disappearance. One officer’s gut feeling that Meier had died by suicide seemed to railroad so much of the early days of investigation. If even the head of Hamburg’s criminal investigation department can’t secure justice through the system, who can?
Dig Deeper avoids a lot of the grosser pitfalls of the Netflix true-crime industrial complex, mercifully. We’re spared endless images of dead bodies and conspiratorial ramblings. The filmmakers don’t try to implicate the viewer as part of some shoddy commentary on voyeurism and justice (why yes, I am still mad at Don’t F**k with Cats, why do you ask?) it’s overlong, even at a slim four episodes, but keeps its focus on Meier and the central investigation over more salacious directions.
There’s something universal about the true crime genre, and it’s only become more homogenized as streaming opens up international audiences while simultaneously relying on the same barrel of tropes to get the job done. Perhaps it’s apt that this endless assembly line of stories about the consistent failings of the criminal justice system are all cut from the same stylistic cloth. They’ve all begun to blur into one for me. I’d almost say it was deliberate if Netflix ever showed a modicum of self-awareness over its true-crime boom.
Dig Deeper: The Disappearance of Birgit Meier is now available to watch on Netflix.