The “x meets y” formulation is one of the most efficient ways to pitch an idea. Nowhere have I seen more x’s and y’s thrown about than in the reviews for Netflix’s first original show in German, Dark, written and directed by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. Despite having only been released on 1st December 2017, it’s already one of Netflix’s “most-watched Non-English shows ever”. Coming from the same platform responsible for Narcos, that’s saying something.
A small distillation of the initial storyline for those of you reading this piece without having watched Dark in its ten-episode entirety: the show is set in the fictional village of Winden, Germany, surrounded by forests, open fields, and an ominous nuclear power plant. Teenager Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hofmann) has returned to school after spending time in a psychiatric hospital to cope with his father’s recent suicide, only to find that one of his classmates has gone missing. Jonas’s mother Hannah (Maja Schöne), cagey about how the rest of Winden perceives her while she muddles through grief, has been sleeping with childhood crush and respected police officer Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), whose own brother disappeared when he was a teenager in the 1980s. When Ulrich’s youngest child goes missing one night in the forest, everything the residents have taken for granted is thrown into question: not only who can be trusted, but also the nature of time, space, and how the universe behaves when things go awry.
And that’s just the first episode.
For a more concise, one-sentence pitch of Dark, the most common “x” by far has been another atmospheric Netflix original… given its astronomical success with critics and viewers since premiering in 2016, Stranger Things sits within easy reach for comparisons (Chaney, Davies, Greene, Hale, Harshbarger, Pearson, Taylor). As for the “y” of “x meets y”, a non-exhaustive list includes The OA (Greene), True Detective (Gracie, Osterndorf), Twin Peaks (Chaney), Top of the Lake (Season 1) (Chaney), Borgen (Osterndorf), The Killing (Chaney, Gracie), The Missing (Hale), and The Returned/Les Revenants (Chaney, Hale, Osterndorf).
For my part, every time I’ve tried to convince friends, flatmates, parents, colleagues and complete strangers to add Dark to their watch list, I too have resorted to the “x meets y” formula, with a “z” for good measure: “It’s Stranger Things meets The Killing meets Back to the Future, in German.” I’d like to think the description is just absurd enough to spark curiosity whilst also accurately summarising the show on a very basic level. Why Back to the Future? There’s a great deal of time travel and intergenerational encounters. Why The Killing? The subject matter lives up to Dark’s name, kicking off with a parent’s suicide and spiraling out of control from there, and the show’s aesthetic is as melancholic and pensive as the Scandi noir sub-genre in which The Killing successfully found its home.
Why Stranger Things? Because when all is said and done, yes, the two shows have things in common. But what often gets omitted from the water cooler discussions and critical reviews is the fact that these shared features are fairly superficial: both Netflix originals, both set in small towns dominated by rural landscapes, both indulging in some serious eighties nostalgia, and both involving a missing child. But these features alone couldn’t make Dark the direct German equivalent of Stranger Things, hence the need to reach not just for an “x” comparison, but a “y”, a “z”, and maybe even an “a”, “b” and “c” too.
The most egregious comparison I’ve encountered thus far is in Mike Hale’s review for The New York Times, where he claims the show had “a strong Days of Our Half-Lives soap-opera element” (Hale). With all due respect to soaps, while there may be one too many fistfights and shouting matches for a ten-episode series, calling Dark a soap opera would be wildly reductive and ultimately untrue. The unpacking of relationships between Winden’s parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses, lovers, friends and rivals is exhaustive. However, where soaps have historically had the luxury of open narratives that can unfurl for decades, Dark’s emotional exploration is disciplined and layered with subtext. Dark’s storytelling is indeed as “labyrinthine” (Brennan) as the network of caves that interlink Winden in 1953, 1986, and 2019; where some have viewed this as a weakness, I consider it possibly the show’s greatest strength. The storytelling traditions that have stood Western culture in good stead for the last thousand or so years are kaleidoscopic in range, so it’s no wonder that Dark, which draws on virtually all of them, is proving so difficult to neatly package into a cross-genre descriptive box. If Dark is a soap opera, then so are the Shakespearean, ancient Greek and Norse tales to which it pays homage.
Take, for example, Jonas’s anguished (but succinct) summary to his grandmother Ines (Angela Winkler) of how his newfound knowledge of time travel paradoxes has thrown their genetic line into a truly twisted, Oedipus/Electra light:
“But you could have saved Mikkel! Now I have another grandmother who’s the principal of my school. Her husband, who’s fucking my mom, is looking for his son, who’s my father! A few days ago I kissed my aunt.” (S1 E10, ‘Alpha and Omega’)
More nuanced cherry picks from the storytelling orchard include Ulrich and Hannah’s character arcs, which embody hamartia and envious mischief, respectively. Ulrich is the most intense personification of the show’s thought experiment about causal determinism which – one might argue – is like Greek tragedy for the scientific age. In episode 1, ‘Secrets’, his worst flaw is cheating on his wife and childhood sweetheart Katarina (Jördis Triebel). By episode 10, ‘Alpha and Omega’, he is handcuffed to a cell bed in 1953, bloodied and beaten within an inch of his life after committing a brutal murder that, to his misguided mind, was supposed to save the missing children of 2019 Winden, but to everyone else is an unspeakable act of evil. Realising in 1953 that he has found the younger version of the man who will abduct and kill his brother in 1986, Ulrich mutters, “But you will kill something…” abandoning the morally grey for total darkness (S1 E8, ‘As You Sow, So Shall You Reap’).
On the other side of this ill-fated affair, like a more muted version of Loki or Iago, Hannah asks Aleksander Tiedemann (Peter Benedict), the man she’s about to blackmail, “Why does fate predestine a good life for some and not for others?” (S1 E10, ‘Alpha and Omega’). A working class single mother who struggles to pay the electricity bill while Ulrich seems to have a perfectly picturesque family, she manipulates, seduces and lies out of self-preservation. Constantly sidelined yet also underestimated, Season Two may well see Hannah become one of Dark’s most dangerous characters, as her self-destructive envy turns into externally destructive jealousy. Elsewhere, different characters become the designated Cassandra figure of their era’s missing child narrative, their premonitions and warnings going unchecked by the rest of the village: Ulrich’s mother Jana (Tatja Seibt) and Charlotte’s father-in-law Helge (Hermann Beyer) in 2019 and then, in a cruelly ironic twist of fate brought on his own head, Ulrich himself in 1953.
Scaling down even further, we find manifold nods to other narratives woven into each episode, from the cosmic Norse tree Yggdrasil engraved on the box containing Michael Kahnwald’s suicide note, to the local school production of ‘Ariadne’s Thread’ and the literal thread left for Jonas to navigate the Winden caves; from Jonas’s friend Bortasz (Paul Lux)’s throwaway response to theories about their classmate’s disappearance that “[i]t’s like the witch in Hansel and Gretel” (S1 E1 ‘Secrets’) to the omnipresence of the tall, dark forest that leaps right off the pages of Grimm’s fairytales. Add to that the aforementioned eighties nostalgia (everything from television ads to outfits, hair, heavy metal, cheesy pop and post-Chernobyl anxiety) and fifties nostalgia (taking a grittier leaf from Back to the Future’s book), and I think it’s reasonable to stop reaching for “x” and “y”s against which we can compare Dark and affirm that it is an “x” in its own indecipherable right.
There is a definite literary slant on this drama, a dedication to layering it as much as possible with purpose, and orchestrating those layers into a dialogue with one another: family history and the (non)linear passage of time, abstract theories of black holes and the all too real horrors of a child who has seemingly vanished into thin air, the utility of nuclear power versus the threat of another Chernobyl, the wisdom of elders and their ever-present weaknesses, and fate and free will — to name a few.
Hale has an additional qualm with Dark, however: almost immediately contradicting the claim that the show is too much like a character-driven soap, he writes that Dark is nothing more than a logic puzzle put to TV, favouring the machinations of plot over believable character studies. He observes that Dark “seems to have been constructed with the aid of spreadsheets” (Ibid.), as if this is inevitably and inherently detrimental to the show’s quality. Given Dark’s borderline insane narrative structure across a sixty-six (or, technically, ninety-nine) year timespan and its attentive focus on seventy-two interrelated characters, I would be unnerved if the show hadn’t been constructed with spreadsheets. Further, even if Dark were nothing more than a mystery box, that wouldn’t preclude its ability to be an excellent piece of art — the collected works of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan O’Doyle alone are testament to that.
Like Hale, Jen Chaney of Vulture writes that Dark “suffers a bit in the humanity department” (Ibid.) and Matt Brennan of Paste Magazine remarks that, in its quest to discuss “everything about time and trauma […] it finally seems to say nothing at all” (Ibid.), but I’m compelled to take the opposite view. Rather, tasked with such an extensive list of characters, Odar and Friese present each character’s essence and their role in the family, the workplace, the community, linear history and the non-linear story with literary elegance and precision. To give just a few examples, the youngest member of the Doppler family, Elli (Carlotta von Falkenhayn), is quickly shown to also be the most cunning, as she dismisses her older sister’s accusation of stealing her red lipstick only to be seen applying it later in the school playground, all while sporting a fox-shaped hat. Her mother and police chief Charlotte (Karoline Eichhorn) is a hard-boiled noir detective without the heavy drinking, her hair cut into a blunt, angular bob and her conversations stripped of nonsense and small talk. Within the first ten minutes of the show, Ulrich is introduced with an effortless swagger as he sneaks down the drainpipe of Hannah’s house and jogs back to his own, armed with a bag of breakfast rolls for the rest of his family as the perfect excuse for his tardiness.
Indeed, Dark’s eloquently and humanely portrayed character arcs, which intersect and bleed into one another throughout, are what drive the show from its genre-colliding origins to its suspense-filled destination. In contrast to other reviewers upon Dark’s debut, Lindsey Jones of the Houstonian Online views the characters as authentic agents rather than mere pawns on a televisual chess board: “[f]or a ‘Heart of Darkness-esque’ story strung up by cynicism and life-threatening mystery, Dark’s surplus of undesirable characters actually enhances the down-to-earth imperfections and nastiness anyone (e.g. best friend, neighbour, spouse, co-worker) can possess on an everyday basis” (Ibid.).
It would be utterly remiss of me not to comment on Dark’s casting choices, which are the most outstanding I have ever seen across both film and television. With so much intergenerational action, it’s crucial that we are able to trace a single character through two or three different actors with immediacy and ease; the physical resemblance between not only the selves of a single person, but all of their blood relatives, is truly startling.
Were I to bring other striking factors behind Dark’s success into the debate, the breakdown would look something like this: 45% masterful plotting and execution of that plot, 35% casting choices, 10% cinematography, and 10% evocative soundtrack. Ultimately, however, I remain convinced that the elusive secret to Dark’s success lies in the infrastructure of its storytelling, its meticulous plotting of events, how its characters react to those events, and how the very nature of those characters means they are doomed to cause those events in the first place.
Season One finishes with 2019 Jonas stumbling into a nuclear winter in 2052. I’ll be very intrigued to see how Odar, Friese and their team handle the well-trodden dystopian genre without falling into a ditch of clichés. But if that’s the challenge they’ve set themselves then, based on this season’s quality, I’m confident they’ll rise to it. For a show that dives head first into the horror of Nietzschean eternal recurrence, the prospect of going back and watching the ten episodes we currently have in a never-ending Netflix cycle doesn’t seem like the grimmest fate in the world.
Bakare, Lanre. The Guardian. ‘Dark review – a classy, knotty, time-travelling whodunit for TV’ <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/dec/01/dark-review-a-classy-knotty-time-travelling-whodunnit-for-tv> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Brennan, Matt. Paste Magazine. ‘Ariadne’s Thread: Netflix’s Dark and the Trouble with Overcomplicated TV’ <https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2018/01/netflixs-dark-and-the-trouble-with-overcomplicated.html> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Chaney, Jen. Vulture. ‘Let’s Talk About the ‘Dark’ Season Finale’ <http://www.vulture.com/2018/01/dark-netfilx-season-1-finale-explained.html> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Davies, Megan. Digital Spy. ‘Netflix’s Dark will make the wait for Stranger Things season 3 much easier, according to reviews’ <http://www.digitalspy.com/tv/dark/news/a844366/dark-netflix-review-round-up-stranger-things/> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Fletcher, Rosie. Digital Spy. ‘Netflix Dark season 1 finale explained – exactly what just happened?’ <http://www.digitalspy.com/tv/cult/feature/a845451/dark-netflix-explained-ending-season-finale-spoilers/> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Gracie, Jack. Metro. ‘Netflix’s Dark season one review: An intriguing drama which lacks character’ <http://metro.co.uk/2017/12/08/netflixs-dark-review-intriguing-drama-lacks-character-7140753/> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Greene, Steve. Indie Wire. ‘Netflix’s Dark Review: The German Answer to Stranger Things and The OA’ <http://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/netflix-dark-review-germany-stranger-things-the-oa-1201876472/> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Hale, Mike. The New York Times. ‘With ‘Dark’, Netflix Delivers Science Fiction with European Roots’ <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/arts/television/review-with-dark-netflix-delivers-science-fiction-with-european-roots.html> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Harshbarger, Michael. Fansided. ‘Netflix’s Dark goes back to the future’ <https://fansided.com/2018/01/27/netflix-dark-season-1-review/> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Jones, Lindsey. Houstonian Online. ‘Netflix’s ‘Dark’: A worthwhile existential crisis’ <http://houstonianonline.com/2018/01/23/netflixs-dark-worthwhile-existential-crisis/> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Nicola, Stefan. Bloomberg. ‘German TV is going beyond Spies and Nazis thanks to Netflix’ <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-25/german-tv-goes-global-as-amazon-netflix-open-money-valves> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Osterndorf, Chris. Daily Dot. ‘Review: ‘Dark’ Is a Gorgeous But Plodding Experiment from Netflix’ <https://www.dailydot.com/upstream/dark-netflix-review/> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Pearson, Catherine. Den of Geek. ‘Dark review: Netflix’s chilling supernatural thriller’ <http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/tv/dark/53718/dark-review-netflixs-chilling-supernatural-thriller> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Taylor, Trey. Interview Magazine. ‘Meet the star of Dark, Germany’s answer to Stranger Things’ <https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/louis-hofmann-dark-netflix-germanys-answer-to-stranger-things> Accessed 30/01/2018.
Wyche, Elbert. Screen Daily. ‘Dark could be Netflix’s biggest European hit so far’ <https://www.screendaily.com/news/dark-could-be-netflixs-biggest-european-hit-so-far/5125338.article> Accessed 30/01/2018.