Serial promise

    • Industry
    • November 22, 2016
    • By Geoffrey Macnab

    The Promise, the new crime documentary from Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger, looks bound for a very long afterlife. A new radio series is being developed that will take the story forward. (This is being done with NDR and the BBC is also in discussion to offer support.)

    As Vetter has revealed at IDFA, the film is being made available in many different versions. It is screening here in a 131-minute cut. There is a 170-minute cut. Several broadcasters will be showing The Promise in series form, as either 2 x 90 or 3 x 60.

    "Why did we do that?", the director asks himself of the multiple cuts of the film before answering that crime stories lend themselves to endless tweaking and revising. A two-hour documentary is often difficult to shoehorn into the schedules. It would make no sense to show a film as embroiled and complicated as The Promise in a 60-minute version – but 3 x 60 works is an acceptable alternative. If that doesn't work, Vetter and his team can offer a 6 x 30-minute version instead.

    "Creatively, we could do more with the material and so we took advantage of that," the German director said of the many different versions of The Promise now in circulation. The film explores the case of Jens Soering, the teenage son of a German diplomat who was convicted in a Virginia court of the murder of his lover Elizabeth Haysom's parents. That was way back in the mid-1980s. He has languished in an American prison ever since.

    It is well over a decade since a German priest first approached Vetter's co-director Steinberger to tell her that he thought Soering was innocent. Having watched 170 hours of the court material, Vetter has long believed in his subject's innocence and is dismayed to see him still behind bars.

    Love letters

    The German director doesn't generally make "true crime" films. His earlier work includes several docs about Palestine and a film on the International Criminal Court. "When we met him [Soering] for the first time in prison in 2013, this interview with him was incredible."

    The interview, which lasted for several hours, forms the core of the documentary. (Since 2013, Soering hasn't been permitted to give any further interviews.) Another key part of the story is the love letters between Soering and Haysom (who once likened herself to Lady Macbeth).

    "These love letters are incredible. You can feel how two youngsters are competing with each other in expressing their love and their thoughts about their families; that they want the world to be a better place; that they want to be different from their families. It was a folie a deux and at the same time, a feverish love story."

    The heady romance came to a very abrupt end when the lovers were arrested in London for cheque fraud. They had "escaped" to the UK after the murders. "Suddenly, this love collapsed," Vetter says. Soering and Haysom realised they would be on their own. "Both finally understood that it was the end of the road." She betrayed him, cutting a deal with the prosecution. He stayed loyal to her, confessing to a murder that he almost certainly didn't commit, only much later retracting his confession.


    Vetter has a very important consultant and sounding board for his films – his mum. When his mother (a teacher) saw the first rough cut of The Promise, she couldn't concentrate on the film because she thought Soering may well have been guilty. After all, he didn't go to the police. At the very least, Soering had participated in the cover-up of a very brutal crime. Vettel realised that he needed to ensure audiences sympathised with Soering.

    "I find out some things I do not find out from screenings because she is harsher, more direct," Vetter says of his mother's opinions on his films. The director had taken an immediate liking to Soering, who had "kept his humour" while behind bars, but who was also "very honest," smart and dignified.

    The story has an obvious Kafkaesque dimension. Soering's sentence seemingly can't be overturned. Neither new DNA evidence nor even a Governor's pardon have helped to secure his freedom. He is caught up in an unforgiving and illogical American penal system.

    Soering, who has seen The Promise and is delighted by it, is now slipping back into despair as he worries that the documentary won't help overturn his conviction after all. One consolation for Soering is that Vetter will always stick by him. If he does win his freedom, Vetter will look to make another film about him, looking at how he readjusts to civilian life after three decades behind bars. "We are all a little bit depressed," Vetter sighs. "It's a political case. Jens Soering – no governor wants to touch him … it's a battle that they don't want to fight."

    Photo: Lisa Terry

    The Promise

    • Marcus Vetter, Karin Steinberger
    • 2016
    • 117 min

      A fascinating analysis of the love between two students in Virginia and the horrific murder of the woman’s parents in 1985. Who fell into whose trap?

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