Face Down: the Disappearance of Thomas Niedermayer - a story of unimaginable heartache and cruelty

Television: RTÉ doc does not conclude on a happy note but it does look to future in Niedermayer’s granddaughters

If you want to know what true evil looks like, reflect on the events chronicled in the upsetting yet gripping Face Down: the Disappearance of Thomas Niedermayer (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm). It’s a story of unimaginable heartache and cruelty, which lays bare the villainy that was a driving force of the Troubles – in addition to the propensity among the paramilitaries for bungling incompetence that would be tragicomic were it not for the trail of blood left in its wake.

The horror began on December 27th, 1973 when German businessman Niedermayer was kidnapped from his modest bungalow in West Belfast – allegedly at the behest, the film tells us, of the late senior IRA commander Brian Keenan. Following the lead of the PLO and Eta, the Provisionals planned to ratchet up their campaign in the North with a spree of abductions: Niedermayer was first.

He was never found again, and producer David Blake Knox – who also wrote a book about the case – contends Niedermayer was accidentally bludgeoned to death when he tried to flee. Panicking, senior Provisionals denied any involvement.

Then, as was the custom, they buried the body in remote woodland and washed their hands of Niedermayer and his family.


Obviously, it didn’t end there. Niedermayer’s widow, Ingeborg, walked into the sea in Bray, Co Wicklow in 1990, unable to go on living following the trauma. Her daughters died tragically – Renate from complications of bulimia; Gabriele by suicide. In 1991, Gabriele’s husband also took his own life.

Keenan lived to his 60s. At his funeral, his coffin was held shoulder-high by familiar faces from both sides of the Border.

His granddaughters – Gabriele’s children – continue to grapple with the legacy. “I never thought I would get to this age,” says Tanya Williams-Powell, who now lives in the UK. “Achieving my 40th birthday was a celebration, so to speak, in itself.”

She responded to the struggle in one way. Her sister, Rachel, did so by going to Australia and never looking back. “I ran away and started a new life,” she says. “Tanya got left with picking up the pieces on her own.”

It’s the cruelty that gets you. The kidnappers could have told the family of Niedermayer’s fate. Instead, they maintained their psychopathic code of omerta and left it to others to retrieve the body.

This is a thoughtful and impressively restrained documentary.

Face Down does not conclude on a happy note. There’s too much pain and wickedness for that. But it does look to the future, with Tanya travelling to the Republic and Northern Ireland before going to Germany, where she meets Rachel, and they visit their grandfather’s family together.

“I enjoy life now. Being a mother is just wonderful,” says Tanya. “I could have allowed myself to fall back into that dark place. I’ve managed to get out of it.”