Spanning thirty years, three continents and a myriad of lies and mistruths, the facts of the case in Karin Steinberger and Marcus Vetter’s absorbing true crime documentary The Promise are anything but clear. Speaking in its latter stages from a common room at the Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia, Jens Söring – the film’s principal subject and a man convicted of double homicide – states: “I was terribly in love with this woman.” There is a bitter sadness to these words; what were the best of times for an impressionable, infatuated young man would soon become the very worst, subsequently seeing the ruin of his entire adult life.
The object of then post-pubescent, obsessive desires was Elizabeth Haysom, a worldly, intelligent but ultimately manipulative girl three years his senior who, along with Söring, was convicted of the murder of her own parents. Described by one of many interviewees as “a beautiful, charming liar,” The Promise points us in the direction of Söring as gullible, maligned but ostensibly wronged and innocent party fairly early on by establishing Haysom as an alluring, scheming venus flytrap of a young woman.
Through a hovering slow zoom and series of crime scene photographs, the co-directors first lay bare the gruesome act of butchery on which the prosecution of these two young adults rests before whistling through their flight to Thailand, then London and focusing for the majority on their trials after capture. With composed, calculated and clipped testimony, Haysom’s intellect and ability to have deceived the rather gormless young German in saucer-sized glasses is immediately apparent. The frequently lurid, sexual written correspondence that Söring and Haysom shared during a brief, disastrous courtship is narrated by Daniel Bruhl and Imogen Poots respectively and sewn extremely well into the fabric of what were the first trials to be televised right across the US.
Furthermore, past and present are seamlessly woven together as late 1980s court proceedings and ongoing current day (2014) investigations run hand in hand. Though a great deal of information does come to light, there is the feeling of a much larger plot here: a judge potentially in cahoots with the Haysom family is but one thread frustratingly untugged. The Promise unfortunately suffers from the passing of time, deaths and interview declines of key witnesses and as such we are left a little unsatisfied, wanting more. An interesting line of argumentation, dropped into conversation by Söring’s long-term lawyer, Gail Ball, is that a jury would have found it much easier to convict an outsider than a doe-eyed local girl of killing her own parents but this again is a momentary lead that we do not follow.
The fact that Haysom does not afford Steinberger and Vetter a contemporary interviews hangs in the air first as an ominous, spectral elephant in the room but becomes an itch a viewer simply cannot scratch, desperate as we are to hear her side of events or see what she has become after 25 years behind bars. But in his first-hand account there is a crushing pathos to Söring’s gullibility, innocence and antiquated belief in love conquering all and that an altruistic, misguided act, stole his life away.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens