Six suspects confess to two violent murders , but no-one can remember the truth. The story of the biggest-ever criminal investigation in Iceland’s history
‘Every Icelander knows about this case.’ In 1974 two men vanished several months apart. Iceland, with a population of just over 200,000, was a close, tight knit community where everyone knew everyone, cut off from the rest of the world. The infamous case - which soon became a double murder investigation - shook the country and the police were under intense pressure to find the people responsible.
But the police got nowhere: there were no bodies, no witnesses and no forensic evidence. Then six suspects were arrested and confessed to the murders, many facing long, harsh sentences. It seemed like justice had been done, but nothing could be further from the truth.
'Every Icelander knows about this case'
Forty years later this notorious murder case was reopened when new evidence brought into question everything that had gone before. It became clear that the suspects had very quickly lost trust in their memories and were confused about their involvement in the crimes they had confessed to. The extreme police interrogation techniques were brought under intense scrutiny.
This tense, psychological thriller tells the true story of the biggest-ever criminal investigation in Iceland’s history. Using first-person testimony, archive footage, personal diaries, false confessions, dramatic reconstruction, wrongful convictions and multiple narratives, Out of Thin Air explores one of the most shocking miscarriages of justice Europe has ever witnessed.
In January 1974, an 18-year-old man called Gudmundur Einarsson disappeared while walking home from a nightclub in a blizzard. He had been drinking heavily and it was a bitterly cold Icelandic night. Police searched the icy lava fields for days, but he wasn’t found. Hypothermia, it was assumed. In Iceland, disappearances like this aren’t uncommon and are a recurring theme in popular fiction. In any other story Gudmundur would have remained a tragic statistic, one of the dozens of people in the past 50 years who have gone missing. But 10 months later, another man, named Geirfinnur Einarsson, vanished. This changed everything.
Perhaps it was because they shared the same surname. Perhaps it was the genuinely suspicious circumstances surrounding Geirfinnur’s disappearance or perhaps it was the media scrutiny on the Icelandic police force in the wake of a high-profile bungled murder investigation six-years previously. Whatever the reason, the disappearances of Gudmundur and Geirfinnur soon became a double murder investigation. The case captured the public’s imagination and the police were under intense pressure to find those responsible. Months of investigation proved fruitless. The only clues: a hurried phone conversation with an unknown caller and the location of Geirfinnur’s car, parked outside a café on the harbour with the keys still in the ignition.
In December 1975, almost two years after Gudmundur’s disappearance, the police had a breakthrough. While interrogating a young couple about an unrelated fraud case, the police decided to take one of the interviewees aside for a different line of questioning.
They showed 20-year-old Erla Bolladottir a picture of Gudmundur and to their surprise she admitted that she knew him. She had met him at a party, she said. He was handsome, they talked. Then on the night Gudmundur went missing, Erla recalled having a dream. She dreamt that her boyfriend, and father of her newborn baby, Saevar Ciesielski, was standing outside her room and was talking with his friends. Except it wasn’t just a dream. It was a nightmare.
The police were convinced she was repressing traumatic memories, the aftermath of a murder, and after hours of endless interrogation she too started to wonder if she had actually witnessed something terrible. In truth, she just wanted to be reunited with her newborn baby. Erla said the police were threatening to deny her access if she didn’t provide a confession. They told Erla that Saevar had betrayed her, implicating her entirely for the fraud they were accused of. The next day she testified that she saw Saevar and three friends with what seemed like a body.
Now the police thought they were really onto something. Had they just uncovered a Manson Family-style cult in the heart of Iceland? Saevar, with his long hair and disrespect for authority, was the archetypal rebel, uneducated, highly intelligent and charismatic. He could easily be imagined as the leader of a group of small-time crooks who were in way over their head.
Saevar, Kristjan Vidarsson and Tryggvi Leifsson were arrested and, after lengthy interrogations, they testified to killing Gudmundur. Albert Skaftason confessed to having driven them into a lavafield to hide the body. It had been a dispute over the cost of a bottle of spirits. All of their accounts more or less matched Erla’s testimony. Now the police started to question them about Geirfinnur – the family man who had answered a mysterious phone call. There were rumours that Saevar knew about his disappearance and eventually the couple confessed their involvement. A media frenzy followed with mounting public pressure for justice. But the case was in disarray, with wrongful arrests and ever-changing confessions: Erla confessed to killing Geirfinnur herself with a shotgun. Later Saevar said he did it; Geirfinnur had died after falling from a boat, then there had been a fight.
By the summer of 1976, four of the suspects had been in prison for six moths. Still there were no convictions. Despite the confessions, the police wanted hard evidence. Such was the mounting pressure that German ‘supercop’ Karl Schutz, who had cracked the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang, was brought in to solve the case. An expert in large criminal cases, he set up a task force of 10 officers (a third of Iceland’s police force). He oversaw interrogations to ‘harmonise’ conflicting and often contradictory stories. Meanwhile police spent weeks taking suspects out to search the vast lava fields for bodies and to re-enact the crimes.
Within a few months of Schutz’s appointment six people were convicted: Erla, Saevar, Saevar’s friends (Kristjan, Tyrggvi and Albert), and a new suspect – 32-year-old Gudjon Skarphedinsson, Saever’s former teacher. Gudjon’s testimony completed the police version of events. Saevar was given the harshest sentence, life for the two murders. The five other suspects were given sentences ranging from 12 years for Gudjon, to three for Erla. The national mood lifted and in February 1977, the Minister of Justice said: ‘the nation’s nightmare is over’. In many ways, it had only just begun.
Some of the defendants attempted to retract their confessions at the trial and were disallowed. When the case was heard again at the supreme court, the defendants again tried to change their stories and plead their innocence. But all the convictions were upheld. If they didn’t do it, then why did they confess?
In 2011, the so-called ringleader of the two murders, Saevar Cieselski, died homeless in Copenhagen, protesting his innocence to the end. His death became a turning point in the biggest criminal investigation in the country’s history when investigative TV journalist Helga Arnardottir started researching the story. After nearly 40 years of reports on the case she struggled to find a new angle.
'the case presents the clearest example of Memory Distrust Syndrome'
Helga’s research lead her to Kristin Tryggvadottir, the daughter of Tryggvi. Kristin revealed her father’s secret diaries, which detailed his innocence. She immediately flew to London to show the diaries to forensic psychologist Gisli Gudjonsson. Within just three hours of reading the documents, Gudjonsson went on the record on Icelandic TV to say the case should be reopened. Two weeks later a government inquiry was announced.
In March 2013, after 18 months, looking at all the evidence, the report revealed the incompetence and abuses of the police investigation. Many of the suspects were kept in solitary confinement for long stretches. They were given powerful drugs and subjected to inhumane treatment including water torture and sleep deprivation. They were denied legal counsel and assumed to be guilty. Erla’s desperation to be reunited with her child had had a huge impact on her state of mind. The confessions were therefore unreliable. Furthermore, no forensic evidence was ever found. No bodies were ever found. No real motive was ever established other than a dispute over the cost of a bottle of spirits.
Gudjonsson, a world-renowned expert in forensic psicology whose expert testimony has been the basis for the overturned convictions of Barry George, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, believes the case presents the clearest example of Memory Distrust Syndrome that he has ever encountered. The condition, which occurs when individuals start distrusting their own memories and become influenced by others, is particularly common in situations of high emotional intensity. Professor Gudjonsson says: ‘I’d never come across any case where there had been such intense interrogations, so many interrogations and such lengthy solitary confinement. I mean I was absolutely shocked when I saw that.’
The case is still ongoing but reaching its final conclusion — the country’s supreme court is considering whether to reopen the investigation, or acquit all those accused of murder. Most of the Icelandic population now believe them to be innocent. According to the former Minister of the Interior Ogmundur Jonasson, the case will be a black mark upon Iceland’s ‘collective conscience’ until ‘justice [is] done’. But the defendants have had their lives and their very sense of self shattered by the experience. Some even still harbour doubts about whether they did it or not…
Disappeared: 27 January 1974
Occupation: Casual labourer
Last seen: By his friends, leaving a club south of Reykjavik in the early hours of the morning.
Later spotted by a driver, walking unsteadily through a snowstorm with another man.
Body: Not found
Disappeared: 19 November 1974
Occupation: Construction worker
Last seen: At home by his 12-year-old son. At 10.20pm, Geirfinnur received a phone call from an unknown man at a local harbour café and left the house. His car was later discovered abandoned near the café on the docks with the keys in the ignition.
Body: Not found
was the key suspect in the investigation. The police quickly realised she was vulnerable and befriended her to coax a disclosure. But Erla just wanted to return home to her new-born baby. She was told that she would not be able to see her child if she did not confess. Then things spiralled out of her control. The police told Erla that they’d questioned Saevar, and that his testimony matched hers. Erla was confused – what really happened? In the years that followed, Erla was lambasted in the press as being the wicked, baby-faced snitch at the heart of the scandal. She suffered a brutal ordeal at the hands of the police and was kept in solitary confinement for 242 days. Now she longs for Iceland to recognise her innocence so that future generations of her family do not have to suffer.
Age when arrested: 20
Number of days in solitary confinement: 242
Number of police interviews: 105
Hours of interrogation: 120
Presence of lawyer: 3 times
Saevar was regarded as the mastermind behind the murders, and the leader of a gang of violent thugs. He was charged with double homicide, for the killing of both Gudmundur and Geirfinnur, and sentenced to 17 years in prison by Iceland’s supreme court. He was also convicted of theft, forgery and drug dealing. Saevar had had a troubled childhood, growing up in the slums of downtown Reykjavik, the son of a Polish American and an Icelandic country girl. He was often in trouble, and sent to various schools as well as a notorious children’s home where he suffered physical abuse.
Because of his oppositional nature and fierce distrust of authority, Saevar never questioned his own memory. Perhaps this is why police guards targeted him for the most extreme treatment, including water torture and sleep deprivation. After he was released, Saevar fought hard to have the case re-opened, with three failed appeals. He ended up alcoholic and homeless, always proclaiming his innocence. It was his death in 2011 that triggered a new campaign to re-examine the case.
Age when arrested: 20
Number of days in solitary confinement: 615
Number of police interviews: 180
Hours of interrogation: 340
Presence of lawyer: 49 times
Kristan had been friends with Saevar since meeting him at school. He was known as Saevar’s ‘bodyguard’ and the pair were known accomplices in petty acts of theft. They were the only two to be convicted for murdering both Gudmundur and Geirfinnur. Kristjan was named as the suspect last seen walking with Gudmundur, and also the man to make the mysterious phone call to Geirfinnur. He was sentenced to 16 years by Iceland’s supreme court in 1980. Today Kristjan lives a reclusive life in Reykjavik, never speaking about this case.
Age when arrested: 20
Number of days in solitary confinement: 503
Number of police interviews: 160
Hours of interrogation: 215
Presence of lawyer: 28 times
Albert still believes that he may have been involved in the murders, almost 40 years later. Following Erla’s initial accusations, Albert gave the first statement. He said that Saevar had called him from Erla’s house after the three other men had murdered Gudmundur Einarsson. He claimed that Saevar offered him some cannabis in exchange for transporting the body. The strange thing is, the car he said that he drove could not have realistically carried a heavy load on such an icy evening. Even taxi drivers weren’t on the roads that night. So what really happened? Today Albert’s memory still plays havoc with his recollection of events.
Age when arrested: 20
Number of days in solitary confinement: 87
Number of police interviews: 26
Hours of interrogation: 17
Presence of lawyer: 4 times
Tryggvi Lwas convicted of murdering Gudmundur Einarsson – along with Saevar and Kristjan – while taking part in a fight at Erla’s apartment. Tryggvi had at first denied all knowledge of the incident, but after 13 days in custody he confessed he had been there. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison by the supreme court in 1980. Three months after confessing and while still in custody, Tryggvi retracted his confession, instead accusing the police of coercion. Tryggvi’s daughter Kristin discovered his detailed prison diaries when she was a young girl, and always kept them hidden. When she finally showed them to a journalist in 2011 they played a key role in re-opening the case. Tryggvi had spent the most time in solitary confinement – 655 days, the longest recorded stint outside of Guantanamo Bay. He died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 58, still maintaining his innocence.
Age when arrested: 24
Number of days in solitary confinement: 655
Number of police interviews: 95
Hours of interrogation: 124
Presence of lawyer: 25 times
Saevar’s former school teacher, was the final suspect to become involved in the case. Gudjon was different to the others. He was older, much more educated, and he came from a good background. He was eager to help the detectives and saw himself as the one who could break the case wide open, helping to heal the nation. He said he had been at the scene of the crime. It was a confession that was used to convict the others. During his time in prison, Gudjon kept a diary that was smuggled out by a priest. This diary is seen as a perfect example of Memory Distrust Syndrome. Today he is a retired Lutheran priest living in Reykjavik.
Age when arrested: 32
Number of days in solitary confinement: 412
Number of police interviews: 75
Hours of interrogation: 160
Presence of lawyer: 27 times
was a young detective in the Icelandic police force at the time of the disappearances. He conducted lie detector tests on the suspects in 1976. For the last 40 years, he has practised in the UK as a renowned forensic pathologist and an expert on false confessions. He was awarded a CBE for his contribution to clinical psychology and is best-known for his pioneering work on Memory Distrust Syndrome and the psychological complexities of confession.
It was Gudjonsson’s report highlighting the major faults of the Gudmundur/Geirfinnur investigation which led to the re-opening of the case. He believes that almost anybody could confess to a serious crime, given the right circumstances. He has worked on landmark ‘miscarriage of justice’ cases including The Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.
is Tryggvi’s daughter. She had found and secretly kept three of her father’s prison journals (he later destroyed the rest of them). They revealed his tortured state of mind during prosecution and demonstrated his belief that he was an innocent man. They also testify to the amount of psychotropic drugs he was being fed by police guards to keep him in check. Kristin’s earliest memories are of visiting her father – she recalls how would cover the bars with sheets to hide the fact that they were in prison.
is a journalist for Icelandic broadcaster RUV, resourceful, committed and fiercely intelligent. When notorious double-murderer Saevar Ciesielski died homeless on the streets of Copenhagen in 2011, she started researching the story, looking for a new angle to report on the case. Helga’s research led her to Kristin Tryggvadottir, the daughter of Tryggvi Leifsson. Kristin revealed her late father’s prison diaries to Helga and, realising how serious the contents could be, Helga flew immediately to London to consult Professor Gisli Gudjonsson. After studying the documents for three hours, he recorded an interview for Icelandic news, announcing that a miscarriage of justice may have taken place. That same week a government enquiry into the case was announced.
MEMORY DISTRUST SYNDROME
'A gentle challenge can lead to a distrust of memory in a vulnerable person'
Professor Gisli Gudjonsson was working on a small case in Reykjavik as a detective in the early 70s. He was convinced that the man he was interrogating had stolen a purse. Gudjonsson told the man that he thought he was a thief. Eventually, under pressure from Gudjonsson, the man admitted to stealing the purse. Shortly after the thief’s admission, it transpired that no purse had in fact been stolen. Gudjonsson was puzzled. Why had the thief been so convinced of his guilt? Gudjonsson’s interest was piqued and so began a lifelong obsession with false confessions and memory distrust, leading to the introduction of the term Memory Distrust Syndrome as a general description of the phenomenon.
Over the course of the last 30 years, Gudjonsson’s pioneering work has influenced the way police conduct their investigations worldwide. He is particularly concerned about the way in which ‘a gentle challenge can lead to a distrust of memory in a vulnerable person after genuine failure to recollect the material event and uncritical acceptance of a false allegation’. In other words, a person in a position of vulnerability can inadvertently appropriate someone else’s suggestion as their own memory. And because there is such a great emphasis placed on confession in legal practice, someone can implicate themselves in a crime simply because the high intensity of an interrogation and their own suggestibility combine to muddle their recollection of an event.
Gudjonsson has proven that presumptive questioning and solitary confinement lead to a vulnerability to memory distrust. It was his work in this field which laid the foundations for the convictions of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four being overturned and it is these findings on false memory which, according to Gudjonsson, were precisely at play in the interrogations in the wake of the disappearances of Gudmundur and Geirfinnur.
In order to combat the occurrence of Memory Distrust Syndrome there have been some important changes in interviewing style in police investigations, both in countries like Iceland, and especially here in the UK, where Gisli wrote the manual every police officer must study. However, authorities in the US have been much less responsive that those in the UK in addressing issues associated with negative aspects of deceptive police interview techniques.
'Lessons are still being learnt as misdeeds are finally acknowledged'
Two strange disappearances, a dark unsolved mystery, a hundred unreliable versions of what had happened. All these things made for a fascinating and compelling story to try and tell. The setting was incredible too – Iceland in the mid-1970s – a time when that country was rapidly modernising after centuries of poverty and isolation. Icelanders told me that before then the country had existed in a state of innocence with almost zero crime. This case symbolised the loss of that innocence.
The producer Andy Glynne had been pitched the idea by a researcher and asked me if I wanted to direct. Over a pint we discussed making a highly cinematic, real-life Nordic noir, seen through the lens of unreliable memory.
As one journalist says in the film, studying the case felt like jumping into a ‘black hole’ – the more I learnt, the more elusive it became. The details were complex and contradictory, there were so many more speculations than facts. Meeting two of the accused, Gudjon and Erla, suggested a storytelling approach. Not to rely on narration, but instead first person accounts, interviewing anyone who was witness to these strange events, and weaving in confessions, prison diaries and police reports. We used film and photographic archive from the time, and extensive drama reconstruction to take the audience to that specific time and place.
Ideas of false memory fascinated me. Two questions emerged. Is it possible, as the Icelandic police had suggested, to witness something so horrific you entirely suppress the memory of it happening? And even more intriguing: can extreme circumstances create memories where there were none before – could you be made to have a specific visual memory of a crime you hadn’t committed?
It was exciting and fulfilling to work closely with our Icelandic co-producer Margret Jonasdottir and a completely Icelandic crew. They brought an aesthetic and authenticity that informs every frame of the film, from art direction to costume design. Working with DOP Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson (Trapped, Of Horses and Men), and drama co-director Oskar Jonasson (Reykjavik-Rotterdam) I decided to shoot the drama so you never see faces clearly. The audience is given space to project themselves into the story. We used anamorphic vintage Kowa lenses to evoke both the era, and an internal subjective headspace. Music by Ólafur Arnalds (Broadchurch) and sound design by Gunnar Oskarsson created a dark wintery atmosphere. My intention was that the cumulative effect would feel internal, claustrophobic, and speak of the fragility of the mind and a shocking abuse of power.
The story is over four decades old, but in Iceland it feels current and personal, almost like a family saga. Everyone seems to have a theory about what really happened, and lessons are still being learnt as misdeeds are finally acknowledged. The news that the murder convictions had been sent back to the Supreme Court came out the same week we finished the edit. Too late to change the structure of the film, but just in time to underline why the story needed to be told.
The main theme of the film is memory – its fallibility, weakness and its ability to turn fiction into fact. Memory is fragile and often changes over time. The film exposes this theme with a forensic attention to detail that is juxtaposed with false memories, confusion and a dense web of lies. What is real and what isn’t?
Out Of Thin Air is built around interviews with the key characters and evocative reconstructions that are interweaved with pictures and archive from the 1970s. The factual format deceives the viewer into taking the reconstructions at face value. But as the film progresses and the details of the case are revealed, information that seemed trustworthy begins to warp and twist. In this way the film approaches the disorientation felt by sufferers of Memory Distrust Syndrome. It becomes difficult to pick through the different confessions and discover what really happened, creating a visceral and emotional experience of what the suspects went through.
Music by Olafur Arnalds (Broadchurch, Life in a Fishbowl), and sound design by Gunnar Oskarsson play an integral role in creating a dark, brooding atmosphere – whether depicting the mysterious disappearances, Erla’s confusion and internal breakdown or the endless police interrogations.
The starkly beautiful landscape of Iceland plays a prominent role in the film, evoking both the dark mysteries surrounding the disappearances as well as the peculiar workings of the human brain. Most of the key scenes happen in the darkness of winter – the first disappearance in a blizzard, the second in a frozen boatyard. Police search for bodies in the endless lava fields.
The years that underpin the investigation of the case were a period of great upheaval in the political and cultural life of Iceland. Change was in the air and civic unrest brought protest to the streets and waves of general strikes. This turbulence in the national psyche would prove to have an instrumental effect on the investigation of the Gudmundur/Geirfinnur disappearances. The growing anger at the political class puts immense pressure on the government to find those responsible. The case came to symbolise something much greater than a pair of unsolved disappearances. It was an opportunity for the government to steady the ship and to assuage doubts about its competency.
The cinematic feel of the film evokes Iceland in the 1970s with everything from locations, cars, clothing, hair and music authentic to the time . Director of photography Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson shot with vintage uncoated Kowa lenses that flare easily and distort the image, creating a highly subjective, psychological feel.
Much like the facts, the film moves from darkness to illumination and then back to darkness. The colour palette is muted, flat and desaturated, as under the clouds of the long dark winter months. Swirling snow, condensation on windows, streetlights in otherwise inky black nights add to the murky atmosphere.
Mosaic Films is an established, award-winning production company specialising in documentary and animation, with a history of making creative documentary series, single documentaries and feature length films for both broadcast and non-broadcast distribution in the UK and worldwide. Mosaic is known for its innovate approach to subject matter and style, and has won numerous awards – including 3 BAFTAs and multiple RTS awards. Its portfolio includes the award-winning To Courtney with Love, the series A Year in Tibet, and the multi award-winning animated documentary series Seeking Refuge and Animated Minds.
ANDY GLYNNE (PRODUCER)
Andy is a triple-BAFTA award-winning filmmaker, a producer and an author. Originally trained as a clinical psychologist, he went on to create the national documentary organisation, DFG – The Documentary Filmmakers Group – and now runs Mosaic Films, a multi award-winning production company. Andy is the Chairman of the European Documentary Network, a trainer on many documentary and production courses both in the UK and overseas, and a consultant to numerous organisations and broadcasters around the world. He has produced and directed over 100 films, including both TV and theatrical documentaries, as well as significant output in the genre of animated documentaries – the latter which has won him numerous awards including a BAFTA, a British Animation Award, an RTS Award, Mental Health Media Award, BANFF prize, BASEL prize and many others. He's also author of the book Documentaries and How to Make Them, and has written and edited numerous children’s books on a variety of social issues, including refugees and mental health.
Dylan Howitt (Director)
Initially trained as a painter and photographer at art school in Sheffield, Dylan now has many years of production experience in documentary filmmaking. He’s madefilms for BBC, Channel 4, Five, Sky and Discovery. He has over 25 thirty and sixty-minute broadcast credits as a director. Twice BAFTA nominated, he’s won many other awards including the Tokyo Video Festival. He has made films in over 30 countries and all over the UK – with children in Guatemala City, people on death row in the US, with gun sculptors in Mozambique, community gardeners in Leeds. He brings a creative, experimental sensibility, honed over years making his own independent work.
Sagafilm is the leading independent production company in Iceland with more than 30 years experience. A leader in professional production for TV, commercials and feature films when it comes to producing quality, covering all genres. Sagafilm has produced series simultaneously for all the Icelandic broadcasters. Sagafilm has throughout the years been the main producer of documentaries for the local and international market and owns an exceptional archive covering Icelandic history and landscape.
Margret is a double-Icelandic EDDA award winning producer with many years experience and multiple nominations for her various television projects. She is currently the executive producer of documentary production at Sagafilm, the largest production company in Iceland. Within the company, she also works as part of the development team for TV-productions.
Margret has produced numerous documentaries for broadcasters in Iceland, the Nordic countries, BBC Storyville, NDR/ARTE and various other TV-stations worldwide. She is a historian by education and holds an MA in Modern History from UCL in London. Margret is also Iceland’s representative in an expert group at Nordic Culture Point and is the national consultant for EDN in Iceland.
For more information about the project please contact:
Andy Glynne, Producer
Mosaic Films, 4th Floor Shacklewell Studio,
28 Shacklewell Lane, London E8 2EZ
+44 (0)20 7923 2994
For press enquiries please contact:
tpr media, 3 Muswell Hill Road
London N6 5FJ
+44 (0)20 8347 7020