A PERFECT CRIME: Creating Germany’s First Netflix Original Documentary Series

A Perfect Crime is a four-part documentary series for Netflix that analyzes the murder in 1991 of powerful politician Detlev Rohwedder.

This German-produced True Crime series reveals the dark side of German reunification. The assassination shook Germany’s recently reunified people. The crime remains unsolved, and resonates even today.

Christian Beetz is co-head of Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion (GBF). For a Documentary Business / Sunny Side of the Doc Case Study, he shared the history of A Perfect Crime, from Netflix’s first contact through pitch, production and delivery.

Trailer:

Concept

  • Monday, April 1, 1991, 11:30 pm: Detlev Karsten Rohwedder is shot dead with a sniper’s bullet aimed through the 1st floor window of his Düsseldorf villa.
  • Rohwedder is the head of the giant “Treuhand” company that is responsible for the restructuring and privatization of the entire economy of the former Communist East Germany (GDR).
  • The fatal sniper shot from 62 meters tears Germany out of the dream of a non-violent and peaceful reunification.
  • Although a letter of confession from the terrorist Red Army Faction is found at the scene, the assassins are never identified.

Treatment

  • We wanted to develop material that would work both in Germany and abroad, that was both entertaining and relevant, and that we could tell the story of the murder in a radically different way, in keeping with the genre.
  • The 40-minute episodes “Martyr” “Capitalist”, “Occupier” and “Victim” present four different perspectives on the figure of Rohwedder and thus possible motives for his murder:
    • Was it the last spectacular murder of the Red Army Faction?
    • Was the East-German secret service Stasi behind the murder?
    • Or were other forces, for example, Western ones at work?
  • The series is situated in the years 1990/91, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • It paints the picture of a divided Germany: the radical economic cure is leading to massive unemployment in the East; the euphoria of reunification has evaporated.
  • In many cities, the Monday demonstrations flare up again and tens of thousands of people take to the streets.  Calls for the Kohl government to resign are louder.
  • A Perfect Crime offers a multi-perspective view of one of the most prominent unsolved murder cases of the German post-war period. A turbulent case and a piece of history that helped shape the foundation of a nation and still touches the torn soul of this nation and its people.

The Pitch Process

  • GBF was approached by Netflix in 2019.
  • We assembled three pitches, but one stood out.
  • Netflix gave the green light for development of A Perfect Crime

Basically, there are two Netflix categories: a “Regional Original”, i.e. local content primarily for the individual countries and then for the worldwide release. And then “Originals”, which are intended from the outset for the world market consisting of 200 million subscribers. After Dark already caused a sensation internationally in 2017 as the first German fiction original, a German non-fiction series was finally to be launched as an “Original.” Filmpulse

Pitch

  • Netflix was looking for its first German Original documentary– so the project had to work on two levels:
    • It would guarantee media attention,
    • And have the potential to provoke water-cooler conversations.
  • And the production needed to be totally different from what we would produce for public broadcasters.

True Crime / History Blend

  • We picked the ROHWEDDER story as it is an unsolved murder case – a perfect starting point for a True Crime series.
  • And we combined it with German history and the often unspoken conflict between East and West Germans that is directly linked to the period after the fall of the Wall.
  • By combining these two layers we had a True Crime story about the dark side of the German reunification that resonates until today.

Project Redirections

  • Initially we pitched a five-part series, but during the editing we decided to cut one episode for editorial reasons.

Key Challenges

  • ZDF announced a project on the same subject in the summer of 2018.  Luckily Netflix was not discouraged
  • In Germany, the True Crime genre stands on thin legs because court trials are not recorded, nor are parliamentary investigation committees.
  • Cooperation with the Office of the Attorney General and the Federal Criminal Police Office is very restrictive.
  • Access to primary evidence and sources is limited.
  • There were no clear lead characters.
  • Difficult to convince the main characters to appear in front of a camera and major key interviews were canceled at the last minute due to this reluctance.
  • Hergard Rohwedder (the widow of the main character) died a few weeks before her scheduled interview.
  • As the main editing started in January 2020, almost the whole editing and post-production process had to be done remotely due to Covid.

Development: Rashomon

  • The clearest way to form a narrative was the “Rashomon principle”: tell the story from the varying perspectives of the different participants.
  • This provided the opportunity to highlight major archetypes: Martyr, Capitalist, Occupier, and Victim.
  • Eventually, these became the episode titles as well, and helped us form a chronological narrative.
  • We decided on a hybrid genre: Archive meets feature film-like dramatic staging.

Post-production

  • Our post-production was server-based, so the editing process was not greatly affected by the Covid lockdown.
  • “Netflix gave us lots of freedom in the editing process, in regards to content and episode length.”
  • The series was reduced by one episode to maintain the narrative flow
  • Bi-weekly meetings with the entire team included legal and post-production.

Delivery

  • Format: 4K
  • 4 x 45 minutes
  • Released 25th September 2020

Archive

  • The work on the project started in the archives with the questions if there was enough archive material of the main character of the series Detlev Carsten Rohwedder, and if the material was “good enough” to show the different faces of him in order to fit the editorial concept of the series.
  • Initial research revealed around 15 hours of footage from the early 70s until his death in 1991, so we could start the production.
  • The series consists of 50% archives.
  • Archives are the “emotional core” of the series: Existing archives reveal the emotions of the tumultuous and violent months after the fall of the Wall until the Rohwedder murder.
  • As we were especially looking for footage of average people and of every day life, this was a super-complex job organized by our head of archive Janne Gärtner.
  • Team: Five researchers during the casting of the interview partners, plus three archive researchers.
  • Key sources: Studio Hamburg Distribution, ZDF, Progress, Spiegel TV, RBB

Timeline

  • Greenlight: March 2019
  • Begin field production: May 2020
  • Edit: December 2019-July 2020
  • Delivery: July 2020
  • Netflix Premiere: September 25, 2020

The challenge is bringing together the two narrative levels that actually function very differently: On the one hand, an exciting True Crime story with unexpected twists and cliffhangers. And then there is the historical-political level of the multi-layered history of reunification. Christian Beetz

Takeaways

  • The True Crime genre works very differently in Germany than in the US.
  • A high-quality docu-series made in Germany can reach just as large an international audience as its fictional counterparts.
  • The story of Rohwedder has been told in German TV many times before as “classical” TV feature.
  • High end True Crime storytelling combined with the German history of 1990/91 told mainly through archives have given the program a special appeal especially for a generation that hasn’t experienced this period itself.
  • “We have to find our own form with our story, but also with our narrative tradition, in order not to drown in the uniformity of the booming True Crime genre.”

Festivals and Awards

  • Series Festival Berlin, awarded the “Best Documentaries Series Award 2020”
  • Film Festival Cologne
  • Nominated for the Grimme Awards 2021 (German Academy Awards)

Praise for A Perfect Crime

  • “From the crack that never healed: The four-part “A Perfect Crime” is the first German documentary from Netflix.  In the style of a true-crime series, it tells of the fractures and upheavals of German unity- stirring, opinionated and haunting!” -Spiegel Online
  • “Two generations after the fall of communism, this is a history lesson as seductive, instructive, and dark.” -FAZ
  • “A Perfect Crime touches on big questions.” -DIE ZEIT

More Reading

Christian Beetz, George Tschurtschenthaler

Key Creatives

  • Christian Beetz (writer, executive producer) is the CEO of the German production house gebrueder beetz film production, which specializes in international co-productions since the very beginning.  He is an Oscar-and Emmy Award-nominated executive producer of more than 200 documentary films and series.  In 2013 the co-production OPEN HEART by Kief Davidson was nominated for the Academy Award and was followed by the documentary WAGNER FILES that received a nomination for the International Emmy Award.  In 2015 he co-produced the tiff & Berlinale documentary THE YES MEN ARE REVOLTING by Laura Nix.  The cinema production THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED won the Special Jury Award for Best Cinematography at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.  2018 the Emmy nominated documentary THE CLEANERS celebrated its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival as the documentary GAZA in 2019.  He developed and produced the first German non-fiction Netflix Original series A PERFECT CRIME that was released on Netflix in Sept. 2020 and won the best documentary series at the 2020 Berlin Series Festival.  Right now he is producing the 5-part police series FACHDIREKTION 65 about the 80 ties at the red light district Reeperbahn.  www.beetz-brothers.de
  • George Tschurtschenthaler (producer, head writer, showrunner and director) Grimme Award winner Georg Tschurtschenthaler studied Economics and Communication Science in Vienna. He worked as a business consultant before he moved on to be a producer and executive producer for feature films and documentaries. Since 2009, he oversees the editorial department as Senior Producer Film & Cross Media for gebrueder beetz filmproduktion. Among feature-length documentaries (“Midsummer Night’s Tango”, “Wadans World”) and award-winning TV documentaries and series (“Culture Files”, “Digital Dissidents”), he launched cross media TV events such as “SUPERNERDS” (interactive TV show, suddenlife gaming, theater and book), “The Wagner Files” (film, graphic novel and app) or “Farewell Comrades” (6x 52 min TV series, book and web documentary). In 2013, he received the Grimme Award for “Farewell Comrades”. He regularly teaches at CAST (Zurich University of the Arts), Institute of Documentary Filmmaking (IDF), IDFA, etc.
  • Jan Peter (director), who created elaborate visual worlds in his documentary drama series 14 – Diaries of the 1st World War and War of Dreams and thus brought with him the ideal prerequisites for the conception and realisation of the play scenes.
  • Martin Behnke (screenwriter) accompanied the development and production as dramaturge. He had already written a few episodes for Dark, so he was very familiar with modern, serialized storytelling.
  • Jürgen Rehberg (cameraman) developed a consistent visual style for the interviews and fictional scenes
  • Editors: André Nier, David Gesslbauer, Philip Gromov
  • Torsten Striegnitz (co-director)
  • Janne Gärtner (Archive & Research)
  • Music: Nils Kacirek, Milan Meyer-Kaya
  • Xavier Agudo (postproduction)
  • Florian Fettweis (producer)
  • Kathrin Isberner (line producer)

Thanks

  • Becca Wallance: Editorial Assistant