IIn the language of tourism advertising, the Höllental east of the small northern Bavarian town of Lichtenberg is considered “wildly romantic”. In May 2001, however, the name got a new sound when nine-year-old Peggy Knobloch was reported missing and the search operations also covered the slopes on the Selbitz river, some of which were difficult to access. Her body was not found until years later. For the filmmaker Marie Wilke, the name “Höllental” became an obvious title for a six-part series dealing with the murder of Peggy Knobloch. It is one of the biggest mystery puzzles since reunification, which has officially been considered unsolved since last year. Because the investigation has been discontinued, and if anything should come of the fate of Peggy after three special commissions and two legal proceedings, then luck would have to help. Or bad conscience. But even then, one could not be sure, because confessions were also found to be misleading.
“Höllental” belongs to the booming genre of true crime stories, which find a large audience in all formats (from podcasts to paperbacks). There are already a lot of edits about Peggy Knobloch, most recently in 2019 a Bavarian podcast (“Secret Files Peggy”, Antenne Bayern), which was awarded the German Radio Prize. From Marie Wilke, one of the most important German documentary filmmakers (most recently “Aggregat”, 2019), one can expect an analytical look at the interplay between institutions and individuals, documents and landscapes with such a subject.
And that is actually the essential quality of the six episodes: a concentrated second-order attention, because the material Wilke works with has always been available somewhere. She only adds it together with interviews, which for her part come mostly from reporters. Only a few protagonists from the police and judiciary have a say. Wilke is not looking for explanations so much as for observations.
Central, the video recording of a meeting at the crime scene
Peggy Knobloch disappeared on May 7, 2001 in the early afternoon on the way home from school in the middle of a small town with a good thousand inhabitants. Her body was only found in 2016 in a forest a good twelve kilometers away from the alleged crime scene. At this point, Ulvi Kulac, a mentally impaired suspect, had already been convicted after a detailed confession, but the trial was later resumed and ended with an acquittal.
As the central document, Marie Wilke presents a video recording of a meeting at the crime scene, in which the course of events is recreated in great detail, and later makes it clear that this “narrative” cannot be taken at face value either. In the second trial, a court expert will admit that a confession cannot be inferred with certainty that it is true. Especially not if the interrogations are conducted in such a way that they “introduce” suspects to hypotheses. So that at some point someone could simply surrender: “I’ll say something, just that I have my Ruah.”
The tightrope walk in a series like “Höllental” is that in the course of the six episodes questions constantly arise that the viewer would like to see in depth, where the director would like to be made an investigator. For example, in the stories of a changed Peggy in the weeks before her death. The fact that she was a victim of rape remains of comparatively cursory importance; The fact that it was dismissed in a psychological consultation with a pharmaceutical instead of a detailed anamnesis is only one of several indications that the topic of sexual abuse probably overwhelmed everyone involved. Wilke is clearly reluctant to deal with these implications, which in turn has to do with the forensic neutrality, as it were, that the genre demands when dealing with material and testimony.
As a real documentary about a small town under the sign of a crime, “Höllental” would presumably weight differently, aspects such as its proximity to the Czech Republic (which is also manifested in fantasies of a “red car” and enslavement to child prostitution) could play a bigger role. Marie Wilke’s six-part series, well worth seeing, confidently arranges the aspects of the murder of Peggy Knobloch and at the same time shows that much remains open, beyond the question of guilt.
Höllental, today at 11:15 p.m. on ZDF.