Netflix’s German co-production is Lost meets Stranger Things, for adults. It’ll also make your brain hurt.
The past doesn’t just influence the future. The future also influences the past.
On December 1st, Dark arrived on Netflix with absolutely no fanfare. Six weeks later, odds are you still haven’t heard of it. And that’s pretty fair — there’s an overwhelming number of obscure television series available to stream on various services, and Dark has the built-in disadvantage of being in subtitled German.* Though I was aware of Dark thanks to the TV critics I follow on Twitter, it took Chase Branch, raving like a madman in a stylish parka, to get me to take the plunge last weekend when San Antonio conveniently found itself iced in. Within just a couple of episodes, I knew Dark was the best-kept secret on Netflix. After finishing all ten, I knew it was a masterpiece.
*You could watch it with English dubbing, but I’m begging you, don’t; it’s terrible.
What is Dark about? I don’t want to tell you too much yet (though I’ll have some spoilery thoughts towards the bottom), but part of the series’s genius is that it doesn’t hinge its success on twists and turns. There’s no shortage of mysteries to puzzle over, but when the answers come, they’re not as important as seeing what the characters do next. Even if you guess something a couple episodes in advance, as my wife and I did on a couple of occasions, Dark won’t just string you along — it continually propels itself forward, and backward, and sideways.
The Black Forest of Germany has been the subject of folklore for centuries, including as the inspiration for the Brothers Grimm. It also surrounds the town of Winden, home to a group of families with intertwining histories and surprising connections. It’s chilly and raining most hours of the day; the shadow of the local nuclear power plant looms over everything; there’s a mysterious cave system that has never been fully charted. And after a series of child disappearances, you’d think parents would do whatever they could to stop their kids from wandering around in the forest, but as we come to learn, all of these characters have their own problems.
We initially center on a group of teenagers (hence the Stranger Things comparisons): Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hoffman), whose father recently committed suicide; best friend Bartosz Tiedemann (Paul Lux), whose father manages the power plant; Franziska Doppler (Gina Stiebitz), whose mother Charlotte (Karoline Eichhorn) is the chief of police; and siblings Magnus (Moritz Jahn), Martha (Lisa Vicari), and kid brother Mikkel Nielsen (Daan Lennard Liebrenz). The Nielsens’ mother, Katharina (Jördis Triebel), is their school principal; father Ulrich (Oliver Masucci), is a police officer, but he’s having an affair with Jonas’s mother Hannah (Maja Schöne). There’s also a love triangle between Jonas, Martha, and Bartosz. Got all that? I haven’t even mentioned the time travel.
Dark is created by Baran bo Odar (who directs all ten episodes) and Jantje Friese, and the pair masterfully pace the series’s plot. It begins with a pervasive unease, slow-burning the starting threads — Mikkel’s disappearance, the arrival of a hooded figure, the discovery of the body of a boy who’s not Mikkel — to help you get acquainted with the town and its residents whose faces seem at first to blend together. Then once the scope of the story really opens up and the interconnectedness of these families take on a fourth dimension, you’ll need a flow chart to keep it all straight, but that’s part of the fun. It’s more than a twisty time-bending saga, but a rumination on science fiction standbys — destiny vs. free will, for starters — given a fresh lacquer. This kind of story has been done many times before, but rarely with so much precision and confidence. It’s as finely tuned as of one of the clocks in theoretician Taanhaus’s (Christian Steyer) office.
That precision extends to Dark’s visuals, which are very much in line with the moody palette of series like True Detective and The Killing, but bo Odar makes a point to draw you in instead of keeping you at arm’s length. For all the Germanic stoicism these characters try to maintain, Dark frequently showcases the devastatingly human power of a raw closeup. It’s also in these moments that the brilliance of the show’s casting comes crashing to the fore, accentuated by helpful split-screens and the ever-present walls of photographs as those in the know try to connect the dots.
Many characters appear at two (or three!) different ages, and casting director Simone Bär has done award-worthy work finding actors that can ably fill in their piece of the mosaic and bear eerie resemblance to their counterparts. The ensemble is sprawling — again, you’ll want to consult an infographic once or twice — but the structure spreads the wealth, letting the residents of Winden take their turns in the spotlight. Hoffman does yeoman’s work as Jonas (he’s carrying the wheel!), following the bread crumbs left by his father and getting his world turned upside down. Other standouts include Eichhorn as the tireless Charlotte, and Vicari, who gets to deliver a monologue from Antigone that carries the full weight of what she and her family have gone through.
I’m going to go into story specifics after the next image, so consider this your spoiler warning — come back after you’ve finished watching. This is a four-star show, bursting with philosophical questions and character detail that will amply reward re-watchers. The potential of the already-announced second season is both intriguing and alarming, not because it ends conclusively (it doesn’t, not exactly), but because for many mystery box shows, the more we learn, the less we care. I wouldn’t bet against Dark, though.
Okay, so I do have some thoughts on the big “twists,” such as they are — though, it must be said, the only truly shocking moment this season is what Ulrich does to young Helge in 1953, and that comes out of a character decision, not labyrinthine plotting. That moment also solidifies Dark as subscribing to the Lost model of “whatever happened, happened,” making the season finale’s climax with older Jonas and his contraption feel simultaneously inevitable and sad. There’s sorrow pulsing through every scene of Dark — Michael’s suicide and Jonas’s discovery of the truth behind it (and what it means for him and Martha), the elder Nielsens never really getting over Mads and living that nightmare all over again with Mikkel, the devastating childhood of Helge Doppler, Hannah’s rueful sociopathy, and how everyone else deals with the ongoing fallout (no pun intended — Chernobyl is an unspoken touchstone). Michael/Mikkel’s story is especially wrenching, as the carefree kid ages into a man who “never knew where he belonged.”
The real origins of Winden’s Wormhole, however, remain opaque. Honestly, though, that’s fine. The ageless priest Noah (Mark Waschke) is the least interesting element of Dark. Where did he come from? Who is he related to (is he Helge’s father, or maybe Ulrich’s grandfather?) Why is he taking young boys, specifically? What’s the real nature of the cosmic conflict he and Claudia (Lisa Kruezer) are locked in? Who built the doors? None of that matters to me as much as finding out whether Ulrich becomes unstuck in time, or what Charlotte does about her discovery, or Hannah and Martha react to Jonas’s disappearance. And poor Jonas, getting beamed to a post-apocalyptic 2052. We know he eventually finds a way to travel between time periods at will, but does his path end in the tunnel with Tannhaus’s device, or will there be more to his story?
It’s been a few days since I finished Dark, and my mind is still whirring with theories, and wrestling with its weighty themes. I can’t wait to watch it all again and pick up on new connections. That’s often the mark of a good show, but what makes Dark a great show — even an exceptional one — is knowing that I’m only scratching the surface, and there is so much more to be explored.