You’d be hard pressed to find a fictional hero as compelling as Herman Knippenberg, the Dutch diplomat in Netflix’s The Serpent who initiates an international investigation into the crimes of Charles Sobhraj, a con man and killer responsible for at least a dozen murders.
Knippenberg, the on-screen character, fills the series’ truth-seeking detective role. But unlike his cinematic predecessors, Knippenberg has no business handling the investigation. He’s a diplomat. He’s told to hand over his findings to the Thai police. He doesn’t carry a gun. He refuses—at least initially—a gun. What forces him into obsessiveness and compulsion isn’t some sort of ego drive—I’ll show them I’m right!—nor any killer-hunting fetish; Knippenberg appears driven solely by his duty to office and country, and to the families of two travelers found dead in Thailand.
How Knippenberg hunts Sobhraj isn’t through car trailing or interrogation or shadowy lurking. He reads newspapers. He makes phone calls. He cuts newspapers. He makes more phone calls. He files reports. … He makes more phone calls. And, by all accounts, he is the story’s hero.
Of course, Knippenberg isn’t a fictional character. The Serpent chronicles real events taking place primarily between 1975 and 1976. Knippenberg’s role in those events is documented. The hero is real.
Billy Howle, the actor who portrays Knippenberg, had spoken to the former diplomat over phone during preparation for the role, but he only first met the man when on set. “Herman being Herman, he turned up on set before everyone else and was ready and waiting to see what this day of filming had [to] offer,” Howle said in an interview.
Knippenberg has praised the team’s fidelity to the story, saying the series got many details correct. “I think that Billy Howle did a fantastic job,” he said in another recent interview. “It was so real at times, some of the scenes I saw. I was gripped myself and had to make up my mind whether indeed it was as Billy Howle played it or as I had experienced it, it came dangerously close.”
Here’s how Knippenberg might have experienced it.
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Who is Herman Knippenberg?
Knippenberg was a diplomat who received his first international posting from the Netherlands in the early 1970s. He moved with his then wife Angela Knippenberg to Thailand to hold the position of third secretary.
In 1976, Knippenberg and the embassy received word from the concerned families of two Dutch travelers. The couple, Henk Bintanja (29) and Cornelia Hemker (25), hadn’t communicated home for some time. They had been traveling on the “hippie trail” across Asia when they went missing.
“These were Dutch citizens, and the parents had every right to think we would help,” Knippenberg told the Daily Mail in an interview. “I’d been travelling in my 20s, and I knew that people like Henk and Cornelia would keep in touch.”
Knippenberg couldn’t let the incident go, even though his superiors told him to forget it. “The more I saw it, the more I knew I had to follow this. The ambassador told me to stop and he even sent me on leave at one point. But I wouldn’t give up on them, even though I knew I was putting my career in danger.”
Unknown to Knippenberg, Charles Sobhraj—using the alias “Alain Gautier”—was living in Thailand and positing as a gem dealer. Sobhraj was, in fact, picking up western travelers, taking them to his apartment compound, drugging them, robbing them, and, on several occasions and with the help of Ajay Chowdhury, killing them.
Shortly after hearing word of the missing travelers, Knippenberg sought dental records and was able to identify both at a Thai mortuary. The bodies of the travelers had been burned. “What shocked me the most,” Knippenberg explained, “was when the pathologist at the mortuary told me there was soot in their lungs, which indicated they had both been set alight when they were still alive.”
Speaking to the victim’s parents Knippenberg discovered Bintanja and Hemker had made contact with a gem dealer in Thailand. After more research, Knippenberg was able to identify “Alain Gautier” (Sobhraj) as the likely killer. He even connected the murder to several others, which had occurred across Thailand. Knippenberg eventually convinced Thai police to apprehend Sobhraj, but Sobhraj soon after escaped to India.
Knippenberg had by then grown paranoid. As in the series, he acquired a handgun, straining his relationship with his wife Angela. He described one moment after Sobhraj’s escape. The scene occurs also in the Netflix series.
I remember it was around 2am. It was pitch dark and a noise on the staircase had woken me up. I reached for the King Cobra gun – an American special forces pocket gun designed to look like an old-style metal cigarette lighter. I thought to myself, “Well, you have asked for it and now you are going to get it.” I saw this shadow move into the room and I felt as if I was having the same thoughts you have before you die. Then I heard this voice say to me, “Oh love. I see you are awake.” I almost exploded. I said, “You stupid woman. Don’t do that again. I could have killed you!”
Sobhraj was later arrested in India and began serving jail time. He was released in 1997 and returned to Paris before making his way to Nepal. Knippenberg had by then remarried and moved to New Zealand.
He described the moment he found out Sobhraj had been apprehended in Nepal:
I was sitting down with my wife having breakfast, eating pancakes, and I was thinking I will never have to go into an office again. Then there was a phone call. I said, “It’s a miracle! He’s been arrested in Nepal. I have to be quick.” I ran down the stairs to my garage where there were six boxes of evidence that I had taken all over the world and I fished out one of the files and called Interpol.
This time, Sobhraj wouldn’t escape. The hunt was finally over. “It took a long time to get Sobhraj, many years,” Knippenberg said. “But I had to do it. He got inside me like some sort of tropical malaria. He wouldn’t go away. This is not over until Sobhraj and I are in different worlds. If there is a Hell, I am sure he is a candidate.”
Where is Herman Knippenberg now?
Knippenberg is now 76. He is retired and living in New Zealand with his second wife. (Angela Kane also remarried; she has held various senior positions at the U.N.)
Charles Sobhraj remains imprisoned in Nepal.
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