Monday , June 21 2021

Netflix’s ‘The Serpent’: The True Story of Charles Sobhra

Netflix’s true crime drama “The Serpent,” which premiered on Friday, may seem incredible – but the creators actually had to calm down the bizarre story of the real scammer and serial killer Charles Sobhra. The series, which first aired on the BBC earlier this year in Bangkok, follows Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) as he investigates the disappearance of Dutch backpacks. The pursuit leads him to Sobhra (Tahar Rahim) and his accomplices, among them Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Ajay Chowdhury (Amesh Edireweera), who drug, rob and kill tourists on the so-called hippie route.

“Real life makes me angry because it doesn’t behave the way stories do,” says writer and producer Richard Warlow, who began working on the series in 2013 alongside director Tom Shankland. He says that “the fact that the situation is unknown to the situation more than fiction, to the power of about 100”: “[I had] to do what you always do when researching stories, that is, make some quarrels, light a fire under certain things, and also – and I have never experienced this before – return the pedal back to some oddity. “

Co-producer Paul Testar, who joined the development in 2014, was tasked with collecting research to support storytelling. He worked closely with Knippenberg, who gave the team access to his extensive writings on Sobhra, as well as Sobhra’s former neighbor Nadine Gires; his prisoner Dominique Renelleau (whose escape from Sobhraj is documented in the series); and Interpol Lieutenant Colonel Sompol Suthimai. Knippenberg provided Leclerc’s diary, and journalist Julie Clarke, who co-produced “On the Snake’s Path” with her late husband Richard Neville, filmed the production hour with interviews with Sobhraj.

“I tried to track down every person who appears in the story, or their surviving relatives if they are no longer alive,” Testar says. “We’re building this research on as high a level as possible so we can draw from it – so we can draw these tiny, tiny details in the story that become really important, be real about them, and make sure we tell them accurately.”

A few of the people involved were made from composite characters for dramatic effect, one completely fictional character was added and the timelines were condensed into points. (The dialogue in the show is also thoughtful.) But Testar says 80% to 90% of the series is accurate. “I don’t think any of this is historically untrue. It was more about leaving things outside. “

Here Warlow and Testar discuss what is fact and what is fiction in “The Serpent”.

Charles Sobhra is escorted by police to a New Delhi court in India for questioning before bail in 1997.

After 21 years in the Indian prison of Charles Sobhra, who is also a Snake, police escort him to a court in New Delhi, India in 1997 for questioning.

(Saurabh Das / Associated Press)

The series is based on interviews with Sobhraj – just not by the producers

Neville and Clark’s interview with Sobhraj, conducted while the killer was in prison in India, was crucial to writing the film “The Serpent,” especially since Sobhraj’s production team refused to be directly involved. (Neville and Clark’s book was originally published in 1979, which means that the interviews took place soon after the events in the series.)

“We decided not to talk to him,” Testar says. “Julie and her husband Richard spent hours and hours in prison interviewing Sobhraj and filming them. Julie gave us access to these tapes, which meant we could hear Sobhra’s narrative of that period without having to work with him directly. It seemed to me that the only use of direct contact with Sobhraj was to see how he would lie to you, and how he would try to pull the wool over you. We were able to listen to these cassettes from a more objective point of view. “

“He’s constantly trying to monetize himself and his story, and we were firmly convinced we would never pay him,” Warlow adds. “And the other thing is, he’s a compulsive liar, so what he should have told us wouldn’t be true.”

Charles Sobhraj was, according to his confession, a murderer

Sobhraj, born in 1944 to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father, was a fraud and murderer. He drugged and robbed the Turks for money and their passports, which he used himself. The first murder, which Sobhraj committed along with Chowdhury, occurred in 1975. The victim was Teresa Knowlton, played by Alice Englert in the Netflix series. There were several murders attributed to Sobhraj and Chowdhury at the time, although “Snake” does not depict all the deaths. The total number of Sobhraj victims remains unknown.

“He was convicted of two murders and is the prime suspect of many others in Thailand,” Testar says. “Because of these murders, arrest warrants were issued, but he managed to avoid returning to Thailand, so they expired. Much of what is known about the murders is from the mouth of Sobhra himself, from the interviews he gave to Richard Neville. As with everything about Sobhraj, it is difficult to check here where the truth ends and where the lies begin. “

“Some say they’re over 20 and others 12,” Warlow adds. “It’s one of those secrets.”

Due to requests from surviving family members, not all victims involved in the “Snake” show up with their real names. Dutch student Henricus “Henk” Bintanja and his fiancée Cornelia “Cocky” Hemker disappeared in 1976 after living in Sobhra’s Kanit House in Bangkok, prompting Knippenberg’s investigation, and the show features Helena Dekker and Willem Bloem. Similarly, Sobhraj’s first wife and daughter have fictional names in “Snake” to protect their identity.

“Sobhraj was very good at creating a false narrative about the people he was supposed to kill,” Warlow says. “And this false narrative basically reads,‘ These are drugs, criminal scoundrels, and you shouldn’t care about them. “I think that’s why a lot of families are so reluctant to get involved in drama. It was essential that we spend time with them and watch it, instead of allowing them to be anonymous and reinforce what is already a false narrative about them. “

He adds: “The only character that is completely fictional is in the first episode, the British hippie backpack Celia. This is because Teresa Knowlton was a very important character in the sequence of events and her uncle York Knowlton was very supportive of us in the show. From the very beginning, I was very excited about what Teresa was like, so we gave her a friend to make a living with when she was in Thailand. “

Jenna Coleman v "Snake."

Jenna Coleman as Charles Sobhra’s co-star Marie-Andrée Leclerc in “The Serpent.”

(Roland Neveu / BBC / Mammoth Screen)

Some of the victims escaped Sobrah’s claws

The third episode of “Snakes” shows Sobhra’s relationship with the young Frenchman Renelleau (Fabien Frankel). Sobhraj opposes Renelleau working for him by taking away his passport and drugging him to make Renelleau believe he has dysentery. Renelleau begins to suspect a wrong game when visitors to the House of Kanit begin to get sick and disappear, and confides in Gires (Mathilde Warnier) and her husband Remi (Grégoire Isvarine), who help him escape.

In fact, Gires helped three of Sobhra’s prisoners escape Bangkok, not just Renelleau. “There were two other people in that apartment at the same time,” Testar says. “We were never able to contact or track them down. He felt that the same thing was happening to them dramatically as Dominique, [and] all this was better given to Dominique to get under his skin as a character. “

The fate of Chowdhury is open, which is real. In the sixth episode, Sobhraj takes Chowdhury to a deserted piece of land and abandons him, although it is not clear if this actually happened. We last saw Chowdhury in 1976.

“We don’t know what happened to him,” Testar says. “There was a rumor that Sobhraj killed Ajay, which I think is absolutely not true. This is a useful fact and plays the mythology of the story, but another collaborator of Sobhraj from Bangkok, a German man, refuted him. After the arrest of Sobhraj and Leclerc in India, a few months after he was in prison, this boy visited his home in Germany and made phone calls to Ajaya.It would have been hard for Sobhraj to kill him when Sobhraj was already in prison.What happened to him , is a complete secret. “

Yes, Sobhraj really kept a domestic monkey

Many of the small details in “The Serpent” are based on interviews with Gires and Renelleau, who lived at Kanit House. Viewers in the UK were appalled when, for example, a monkey was poisoned in episode 3, but the creators based this on real events: Sobhraj and Leclerc’s house monkey, Coco, got their hands on a drug Sobhraj used to weaken Renelleau and died.

“The events that take place are so unusual and then you find out that it actually happened,” Warlow says. “So many people say to me,‘ What, monkey? Really? Did he drink poison? Really? And yes, it was 100% like what happened. “

“That’s what Dominique told us,” Testar adds. “He was so sad that he accidentally poisoned him. The monkey sounds like a terrible life. We decided not to include some because it would be simply scary, but apparently the monkey wasn’t schooled in the house, so he wore diapers. It’s one of those extraordinary details that seems like “it’s too far. People won’t believe it.”

Billy Howle in "Snake."

Billy Howle in the film “The Serpent” as Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, whose investigation into a series of massacres in the 1970s led him to Charles Sobhra.

(Roland Neveu / BBC / Mammoth Screen)

Sobhraj received a life sentence after years of fame

Caught in New Delhi after drugging members of a student tour group, he eventually went to prison in India, where he served from 1976 to 1997. After his release, he returned to Paris and lived as something famous. He has given several prestigious interviews, including for the ABC news team, and director William Friedkin at one point signed on to direct a film about Sobrah starring Benicio del Toro. Sobhraj then returned to Nepal for an unknown reason, where a warrant was issued for his arrest for the murders of Laurent Carrière and Connie Jo Bronzich (played by Benjamin Braz and Dasha Nekrasova).

“I wouldn’t say he gave up, but he announced his arrival,” Testar says. “He said very clearly that he was there. He went to the casinos and took photos. But why is it one of the biggest secrets of the story and we don’t try to explain it. “

Sobhraj claimed to have returned to arms talks between the Taliban and the CIA, but it is believed that his hype was so great that he felt the order had passed along with that in Thailand. It is also possible that he wanted a headlight at all costs. Whatever the reason, Sobhraj was arrested in Kathmandu on the day of Knippenberg’s retirement – a detail missing from the last episode.

“When Herman got the news that Sobhraj was arrested in Nepal in 2003, he had [cocktail]because it was the first day of his retirement, ”Warlow says. “From a playwright[’s] from a point of view, it’s the kind of thing I would hate for writing if I wrote. That’s right on the nose. But really, what happened in his life called him the day he gave up everything. “

He adds: “Herman was the reason I wanted to do it. You have two diametrically opposed men who were born within months of each other and never met, but they had this revolutionary effect on each other’s lives. One was this live-born lizard king from the 70s and the other a square if we use the native language of that time. I was very interested in the market that toppled the hip king. There’s a version of this show where you just watch Charles pulling incredibly evil – over and over again for hours. I never wanted to tell that story. I was always looking for how he was caught. “


Where: Netflix

When: Anytime, from Friday

Rating: Not rated

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