As long as there are crimes, there will be true-crime documentaries. The glut that permeates cable television has lately spread to cinemas, with the latest addition being Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger’s examination of a 1985 double murder in Virginia. Featuring compelling real-life figures who practically invite casting guesses for the inevitable Hollywood dramatization, Killing for Love should easily satisfy viewers who can’t get enough of this stuff.
The lurid killings of Derek and Nancy Haysom were tailor-made for tabloid consumption and, much to this documentary’s benefit, led to a nationally televised trial. The prosperous couple lived in a well-appointed home where they were stabbed to death, so savagely that one detective on the scene commented, “It was like stepping inside a slaughterhouse.” The film doesn’t shy away from including gruesome crime-scene photos that are as hard to look at as it is to turn away from them.
Arrested and ultimately convicted for the murder were the couple’s daughter Elizabeth — raised in the lap of luxury and sporting the sort of post, faux-British accent that only money can provide — and her younger, 18-year-old University of Virginia boyfriend Jens Soering, son of a German diplomat. In arresting footage of the trial, the young people seem incongruous lovers. Elizabeth is poised and elegant, looking like a young Grace Kelly and referring to herself as “Lady Macbeth.” Her geeky, bespectacled boyfriend, who is accused of committing the crime, barely seems capable of opening a jar, let alone brutally stabbing two people to death in the name of love.
Besides the trial, the film centers on a prison interview with the now middle-aged Soering, who despite his perfect English delivers his answers in German. Still maintaining his innocence, Soering bitterly claims that Elizabeth betrayed him and that he only confessed to the crimes to exonerate her. He had assumed that he would be protected by his father’s diplomatic status and sent back to Germany, but he obviously miscalculated. The filmmakers seem to be on his side, casting doubt on his guilt by including interviews with various figures, including one of the original investigators, who bring up evidence implicating other, unknown perpetrators.
The filmmakers whittled Killing for Love down to feature length from a multi-part television documentary, and the seams show. The film is frustratingly disjointed and hard to follow at times as it inundates viewers with a torrent of information. Nonetheless, it proves compulsively fascinating, from its account of how the two suspects fled to Europe and got caught after attempting to pass bad checks to steamy excerpts from their love letters read by actors Daniel Bruhl and Imogen Poots. Soehring also proves a fascinating interview subject, lamenting his dire situation while also somehow managing to find ironic humor in it. Downright funny are the frequent reaction shots featuring a bored cameraman and an even more bored female prison guard although, to be fair, it’s likely that neither either of them spoke German.
Filled with striking moments — such as the courtroom revelation that Elizabeth’s mother took nude photographs of her and may have abused her sexually, and a tour of the house in which the murders took place, conducted by its current owner who doesn’t seem at all fazed by its horrific past — Killing for Love seems tailor-made for a showcase on the Oxygen network or Investigation Discovery.
Production company: Filmperspektive
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Directors: Marcus Vetter, Karin Steinberger
Producers: Marcus Vetter, Louise Rosen, Ulf Meyer
Director of photography: Georg Zengerling
Editor: Marcus Vetter
Composer: Jens Ole Huerkamp