Behind the Story of the Berlin Darkroom Killer

By Răzvan Ion

The founder of GAY45 is passionate about the psychology of serial crime. Especially of documentaries on queer serial killers. This is the story of the heinous crimes of the “Berlin Darkroom Killer”. Crime Scene Berlin, a new series on Netflix delves into the 2012 serial killer case. The murder series had already inspired the gay filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim to the feature film Darkroom: Deadly Drops in 2019.

12 years ago, a series of murders shocked the Berliners: Within a few weeks, three men were found murdered with an overdose of KO drops (Liquid Ecstasy). One in the darkroom of a gay meeting in Berlin-Friedrichshain, two in their apartments. A fourth attack failed, and the victim survived.

In the realm of true crime narratives, a peculiar taxonomy emerges from murders of captivating young women, killings executed by serial predators, and homicides enacted within bustling urban hubs. The rationale behind this classification appears self-evident. Authentic crime, that which is reflected in official statistics, often festers within domestic confines, thrives amid poverty’s grip, or aligns with the machinations of organized syndicates. Not only does such crime defy easy serialization, but it also prompts probing inquiries into the socio-political circumstances dictating victimhood. Unravelling these complexities proves a task too formidable for the true crime genre, which thus veers away from the gritty realities of criminality.

Crime Scene Berlin: Nightlife Killer epitomizes this narrative trope. Inspired by a headline-grabbing case from 2012, the series unfurls around a string of deaths resulting from the surreptitious administration of liquid ecstasy, colloquially known as KO-knockout drops. The clandestine acts unfold within the clandestine confines of a Berlin nightclub’s darkroom, prompting sensational monikers like the “darkroom killer.”

As Netflix delves into this three-part saga, Berlin assumes a starring role replete with all its clichés. Sweeping camera pans traverse nocturnal thoroughfares, juxtaposed with glittering aerial vistas. Amidst the visual spectacle, denizens flit through iconic locales—Oberbaumbrücke, Warschauer Straße, the TV Tower—while succumbing to pulsating techno beats or indulging in the city’s vibrant subcultures. Yet, amidst the glamour, Berlin’s underbelly emerges through the dilapidated offices of intrepid investigators, a microcosm mirroring the bureaucratic quagmire of the city’s administration.

At the heart of the narrative lies the enigmatic figure of a serial assailant, a spectre haunting an internationally renowned metropolis. Berlin, in all its splendour, becomes the canvas upon which this gripping drama unfolds. However, it’s the dogged determination of forensic sleuths ensconced within their modest environs that lends gravitas to the tale. Labelled a “century case” by one medical examiner, its complexity stems from the novelty of liquid ecstasy as a lethal weapon and the perpetrator’s dispassionate detachment from their victims—a rarity in the annals of crime, yet a requisite for captivating storytelling.

The trail of breadcrumbs eventually leads to an unassuming schoolteacher from Saarbrücken, whose dual life as a predator belies his outward veneer of normalcy. Accused of murder for pecuniary gain, his motive remains shrouded in ambiguity even as he stands trial. Despite a semblance of closure afforded by his conviction, the truth remains elusive, buried alongside the perpetrator who chose to evade justice through self-inflicted demise.

In a tale where fact mirrors fiction, the series grapples with the inherent limitations of true crime narratives. Bereft of the perpetrator’s testimony, the narrative’s scope for revelation dwindles, leaving behind a patchwork of conjecture and unfulfilled speculation. The victims, relegated to mere footnotes, offer fleeting glimpses into lives extinguished prematurely, their stories eclipsed by the sensationalism of the hunt for justice.

As the series draws to a close, lingering questions persist, shrouded in the murky depths of human psychology and societal prejudice. Was this merely an isolated incident, or does it serve as a harbinger of deeper societal malaise? Through the prism of Berlin’s hedonistic underbelly, the series flirts with profound socio-political inquiries, yet ultimately shies away from substantive exploration, content to dwell in the realm of intrigue rather than illumination. In the words of a disillusioned prosecutor, “I never understood this case. Solved yes, understood no.”

With each meticulously planned act of violence, a paradox emerged – the killer, in a macabre twist, exhibited signs of care and compassion. Victims were not discarded callously; instead, they were tenderly tucked into bed, windows opened to allow fresh air to caress their lifeless forms. Yet, amidst this veneer of apparent caregiving, a darker truth lurked beneath the surface.

While the judge fixated on the material possessions stolen, a deeper understanding eluded the court. These objects, likely viewed as trophies, held a significance far beyond their material worth. They served as macabre mementoes, relics of the power the killer wielded over their victims’ lives.

The arrest itself unfolded as a twist of fate, rather than through the astuteness of the investigative team. It was the killer’s own admission. One day, he was called to be a witness in the investigation as the last person in contact with one of the victims. A day later, he goes to a police interview. He could have run, hidden. The investigators would have set him free if he hadn’t confessed. Yet, even in their confession, the enigma of their motivations remained elusive.

The glaring conclusion emerged not from the brilliance of forensic scientists or the acumen of seasoned detectives, but from a collective lack of understanding among the investigative team. Despite their skills and good intentions, key aspects eluded them, underscoring a critical gap in their knowledge.

One striking instance was their unfamiliarity with the concept of a darkroom, a basic element in the case. Such oversights underscored the depth of the challenge they faced. Even the presiding judge, often considered the ultimate arbiter of justice, fell short in grasping the complexities of the situation. His interpretation of the killer’s motive as mere greed highlighted the superficiality of the analysis.

However, amidst the missteps, a poignant lesson emerged: the invaluable contribution of diverse perspectives. Had there been a consultant with relevant expertise—perhaps someone from the LGBT+ community—insights into the case might have flowed more readily. The absence of such representation not only hindered understanding but also prolonged the investigation unnecessarily.

This case serves as a sobering reminder of the importance of inclusivity in the pursuit of justice. In a world where diversity of thought can unlock doors to truth, overlooking the voices of marginalized communities can prove costly. As we reflect on this missed opportunity, let it be a catalyst for change—a reminder that true justice can only be served when all voices are heard and valued. We not only enhance our understanding but also fortify our capacity for future prevention through a deeper comprehension of the psyche of serial offenders.

Crime Scene Berlin: Nightlife Killer is streaming on Netflix now.

Răzvan Ion is the founder of GAY45. A professor of curatorial studies and critical thinking in Vienna, he is passionate about comic books, technology, the stock market, art, alternative indie music, true crime, movies, literature, drag queen shows, and artificial intelligence.

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