In ‘Crime Scene,’ Joe Berlinger Investigates True-Crime Obsession

By Chris Vognar

In his latest Netflix docu-series, the director of foundational works like “Paradise Lost” turned his lens to the fans and web sleuths that are changing the stakes of true crime.

“I’m described as a true-crime pioneer,” Joe Berlinger said. “I liked the pioneer part. The true crime thing makes me a little nervous.”
“I’m described as a true-crime pioneer,” Joe Berlinger said. “I liked the pioneer part. The true crime thing makes me a little nervous.”Credit...Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

This article contains mild spoilers for the Netflix series “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel”

It’s hard to find much that is redeeming in true-crime documentaries these days. They tend to showcase humanity’s worst, there’s a seemingly endless supply, and they’re generally so repetitive that it’s hard to tell one from another. On Netflix, you can watch the four-part “Night Stalker,” about the Los Angeles serial killer Richard Ramirez, and then click over to the four-episode “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” in which Ramirez makes a cameo.

But “Crime Scene,” directed by the true-crime veteran Joe Berlinger, has some other guest stars, and they make the enterprise a little different than most. One is the title character, the towering Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Located in the city’s drug-and-crime-infested Skid Row area, and known for its history of horrors, the Cecil has stories to tell.

So do the supporting players. One by one they bear witness to what they haven’t seen, peering out from their computer screens and offering explanations and verdicts. The police covered up the crime. The death metal singer killed her. Wait, it’s just like that one horror movie. Or maybe it’s a ghost story.

They are web sleuths, and together they form a sort of uninformed Greek chorus in “Crime Scene,” which premiered on Wednesday. It covers the well-chronicled 2013 disappearance of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian tourist. But the story ends up being more about the nature of truth and mass speculation — and about the ethics of true crime, generally — than about any particular crime.

ImageSurveillance footage from the Cecil Hotel the night of Elisa Lam’s disappearance became a source of rampant speculation and conspiracy theory among a community of self-appointed web sleuths.
Surveillance footage from the Cecil Hotel the night of Elisa Lam’s disappearance became a source of rampant speculation and conspiracy theory among a community of self-appointed web sleuths.Credit...Netflix

“The sleuths are very integral to the structure of the show because what’s interesting for me is perception,” Berlinger said in a telephone interview last week. “I wanted the viewer to really experience it the way the web sleuths did in terms of putting together information and the rabbit holes they went down.”

Berlinger, who frequently works with Netflix but also does projects with other networks, has been at this for a while, since well before true crime documentaries flooded the airwaves and streaming platforms.

In 1992, he and Bruce Sinofsky debuted “Brother’s Keeper,” the wrenching tale of a barely literate farmer accused of murdering his own brother. In 1996, he and Sinofsky released “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” which interrogated the circumstantial evidence that put three Arkansas teenagers in prison, accused of killing and mutilating three young children. Berlinger and Sinofsky made three “Paradise Lost” films altogether, and the teenagers, widely known as the West Memphis Three, were eventually set free.

This would seem to be a far cry from “Cecil Hotel,” whose eight-year-old central mystery can be solved by anyone with an internet connection. But Berlinger sees commonalities. For one, those web sleuths.

The web wasn’t what it is now in 1996. But Berlinger remembers those who went online, pre-social media, and provided important information about the West Memphis Three. “People can see that these kinds of investigations by regular people can lead to some positive outcomes,” he said.

That’s not really the case in “Cecil.” The sleuths go after a death metal artist and ruin his life with false accusations (a touch of satanic panic with echoes of “Paradise Lost,” in which the prosecution uses the West Memphis Three’s taste in heavy metal to help build its case). They obsess over a piece of elevator surveillance footage, seeing proof of evidence tampering where none existed. They accept seemingly every explanation except the simplest one. In general, they get in the way.

Some feel the true-crime genre gets in the way as well — of other kinds of documentary and of storytelling in general.

A grand Beaux Arts establishment when it was built in 1924, the 700-room Cecil gradually declined into a hub of crime and homelessness.Credit...Netflix

“Media companies have grown dependent on the genre,” said Thom Powers, the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, in an email. (Powers is a fan of Berlinger, and has programmed his work in the past). “I worry that it’s becoming escapist entertainment that depletes resources from other stories.”

“At its worst, the true-crime genre is law enforcement propaganda,” he continued. “The storytelling is so preoccupied with lurid crime details, it rarely pulls back to study larger dynamics.”

Even Berlinger has reservations about the genre. His recent body of work comprises several TV docu-series about sensational crimes, including “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” “Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers” and “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich.” But call him a true-crime filmmaker and he bristles.

“I’m described as a true-crime pioneer,” he acknowledged. “I liked the pioneer part. The true-crime thing makes me a little nervous because I think of myself more as a social justice filmmaker spending a lot of time in the crime space.”

He added: “I do think there’s a lot of irresponsible true crime being done where there’s no larger social justice message or there’s not a larger commentary on society. It’s just about wallowing in the misery of somebody else’s tragedy without any larger purpose.”

The Cecil has tremendous symbolic value connected to the social history and issues of its surroundings. A grand Beaux Arts establishment when it was built in 1924, the Cecil, which is no longer open, gradually declined along with its neighborhood. The area now called Skid Row developed into a hub of crime and homelessness in the ’30s, and the Cecil, a 700-room behemoth, became known for cheap residential accommodations and tawdry doings. Drugs, prostitution and suicides were common. In 1964, the body of a well-liked retired telephone operator, Goldie Osgood, was found raped, stabbed and beaten in her room. The crime was never solved.

“There’s a lot of irresponsible true crime being done where there’s no larger social justice message,” Berlinger said. “It’s just about wallowing in the misery of somebody else’s tragedy.”Credit...Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

Ramirez, the serial killer, was a guest; he reportedly would go there after a tiring night of killing, throwing his bloody clothes in a nearby dumpster before returning to his room. So was the prolific Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, who, posing as a journalist, continued his spree in Los Angeles by killing three sex workers.

It’s not hard to summon a dark aura around the hotel, and many media accounts have done just that.

“It’s been shown as a really dark place, with Richard Ramirez having been there and of course Elisa Lam,” said Amy Price, the hotel general manager from 2007 to 2017, in a recent phone interview. She also appears in the series. “But I thought how they presented everything was authentic and very fair.”

For all that has happened at the Cecil, without Lam’s disappearance there would be no documentary, and probably very little interest in the hotel today. The web sleuths, none of whom have met her, profess their love and affection for her. They, and the series, pore over the elevator video as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls. We watch, over and over again, as Lam punches a row of elevator buttons and squishes herself into a corner of the elevator, then exits and makes some odd hand gestures. Surely this must all mean something.

Or, maybe not. And here’s where you either stop reading (assuming you haven’t already Googled the case) or continue on to the not-terribly-mystical conclusion. In the end, yes, the Cecil was a crime scene. Many times over. But it appears there was nothing criminal about the Lam case, which was, according to investigators, a sad accident.

Asked how he reconciles his more high-minded ideals with the true-crime genre’s imperative to entertain, Berlinger pointed to the fact that “Cecil” tackles subjects that go beyond the corpse at its core, including cyberbullying, homelessness and mental illness. But he also knows true-crime viewers are tuning in for the more lurid details, and sometimes that gives him pause.

“I do ask myself, if, God forbid, something happened to me or my family, would I want someone to tell that story?” he said in a follow-up email. “If I’m being totally honest, I would only want that if the telling of that story had a larger purpose than just ‘entertainment.’”

Is Berlinger having it both ways? Perhaps. But so is any news article about the series, as the layers of meta-critique pile up. With “Cecil,” he argued, playing to that true-crime imperative is exactly why it works.

“In some ways, we’re being very self-reflexive in using the conventions of true crime to seemingly tell a true-crime mystery,” Berlinger said by phone. “Then, we turn it on its head at the end.”

He added: “I thought it was appropriate and interesting to choose a crime that actually isn’t a crime, with a perception that something nefarious happened but, in fact, it wasn’t a crime at all.”

That’s certainly one way to tweak the true-crime genre. Just remove the crime.