Dark, Netflix’s new German-language import, is a stunning sci-fi that muses the reality of time, the potency of religion, and if humanity is autonomous at all.
Set in Winden, a tiny German town, Dark‘s foray into the ’80s and its core cast of teenager characters has seen it rotely compared to Stranger Things, Netflix’s other ’80s inspired mega-hit.
But that’s where similarities begin and end – and regarding Dark as a pastiche is a mistake that belies the intricacies of its storytelling.
In short, Dark is far more complex than Stranger Things, packing four families, their histories, and an ominous power plant into a sprawling, tightly-paced 10-episode arc.
That’s not to say it’s better than Stranger Things, as each show’s strength is largely the other’s weakness.
Dark lacks characters to root for wherein Stranger Things‘ characters are the reason for its success. Likewise, Stranger Things is obviously-plotted where Dark zips and twists.
Dark is grim and dirty with multiple cases of child murder, frazzled main characters, abuse, and murky intentions. Indeed, the show begins with a man in 2019 killing himself, leaving behind his son, Jonas, and a just-about sketched-out cast of teenagers from four interconnected families: The Nielsens, Dopplers, Tiedemanns, and Kahnwalds.
Essentially a story of time travel, Dark‘s mystique is its strongest weapon. Several episodes in and the crux reveals itself: kids are being kidnapped and brought to a bunker where their energy and energy from the nuclear plant are being harnessed to create a wormhole so characters can travel in 33-year leaps.
Why? It depends on which unreliable character you choose to believe: it’s either a propagation of evil or an act of God/good meant to save Winden and the wider world.
In fair Winden where we lay our scene…
Dark is a visceral gut-punch, orchestrated by director and showrunner, Baran bo Odar, with fairytale elements in its menacing forest, thundering soundtrack, and constant sense of malaise.
Time is non-linear and so is Dark as it races through its timelines, each set at 33-year intervals, until everything unites in 2019 with Jonas and the mysterious “stranger”, who (spoiler alert) is adult-Jonas on a path to destroy the wormhole once and for all.
The one enduring critique of Dark is that it can be difficult to trace each character and how they relate to each other. (Even tracking who is who across timelines can be a minefield.) The story takes part in the present (2019), the past (1986) and the further past (1953), with inter-connected characters.
Jonas, our starter MC, is the stalwart of 2019, with friends who are the kids of the kid-characters in 1986. It sounds confusing because it is. The vast majority of the adult cast in 2019 have teenaged counterparts in 1986, while the grandparents in 2019 have young equivalents in 1953.
The core cast of over 16 characters have a hierarchy too: track Jonas, Ulrich, Helge, Mikkel (the boy who vanishes in 2019 and the catalyst of the story), Charlotte, Regina, and Claudia most closely as they are the pinwheels of the entire plot.
Be prepared to occasionally hit the pause button too, as the story often ricochets between past and present.
Dark: a fairytale come to life
Dark‘s influences are obvious with allusions to myth, gothic fairytales, the Chernobyl disaster, the Emerald Tablet, history and science. Though it’s a sci-fi, it barely wears its science at all. The towering power plant is omni-potent, but the technology rarely gets anymore advanced than a smartphone. (Indeed, in 1953, characters muse over the “strange device”, i.e. the smartphone Ulrich leaves behind in his jacket pocket.)
In true time-travelling form, Dark occasionally comes over a little silly: towards the end of the season, a stricken Jonas ends things with Martha because he discovers that his father (spoiler!) is actually a grown-up version of missing Mikkel, meaning that Martha, his love interest, is actually his aunt.
While Louis Hofmann sells the moment well, it’s hard to take it seriously – but such is the nature a tightly-wrapped piece about time travel. Hofmann, the stand-in lead amongst the young cast, is largely excellent as the haunted Jonas, and he’s matched across the board by strong performances.
Though some of the actors are given very little to do (especially the bulk of the teenaged cast in 2019), they all inhabit their roles with vigor and skill. (As a side-note, turn off the awful English-language dub and take the time to read the subtitles instead.)
The adults match the young cast equally well, though Oliver Masucci as Ulrich largely steals the show with his conflicted (and conflicting) portrayal. Second to him is Helge and his three iterations across time and space: young Helge has a blight, nervous disposition under a mean mother while middle-aged Helge and old-man Helge are driven by a raw sense of loss and disquiet.
It’s a disquiet that underpins the entire show. Make no mistake: no one on Dark is happy. Dark is an intriguing show built on great performances and an astonishingly-plotted script that’ll leave the audience wanting for more.
Indeed, the final minutes introduce a fourth timeline that transplants Jonas into an apocalyptic, future wasteland version of Winden that’s clearly a call-to-arms for a second season.