Dark is not a German version of Stranger Things; its historical vision is distinctive.
By Peg Aloi
This German series, a Netflix original, is more thriller than the horror, but there’s plenty of spooky strangeness to excite viewers who appreciate a bedeviling touch of the unfathomable. Dark opens with a mystery. In the small German town of Winden a young boy goes missing; there are immediately murmurs of a similar vanishing many years before. In fact, the head of the police department, Ulrich Nielsen (a strong performance by Oliver Masucci), had a teenage brother who disappeared in 1986. The case was never solved. Because he is in charge of investigating this child’s disappearance, Nielsen’s colleagues wonder, probably not for the first time, if his unorthodox methods and intense dedication are a result of decades of guilt and grief.
Nielsen is caught up in overlapping webs of intrigue, his confidence as a cop at odds with his struggle to manage his own family’s difficulties (he married his high school sweetheart, is having an affair with an old classmate who is recently widowed, and his teenage son and daughter are becoming bigger handfuls by the day). Nelsen is an imperfect man, which makes him a suitably compelling protagonist, a man easily obsessed with clearing up the layers of deception generated by this recent disappearance. The women in his life present challenges that he often seems to want to escape from: his mother, his wife, his lover and his partner all respect his strengths but are frustrated by his weaknesses. Detective Charlotte Doppler (Karoline Eichborn, in a subtle and riveting performance) is assigned to assist Nielsen but also expected to keep him in check, a task that becomes increasingly treacherous. His son and daughter, caught up in their own emotional problems, are members of a cynical student body that, knowing something of the town’s disturbing past, seems to expect terrible things will continue to happen. A bleak future is assumed and hangs like a storm cloud over everyone’s daily routine. One student in particular, Jonas (played by the excellent Louis Hofmann, recently seen in Red Sparrow), a boy whose father has recently committed suicide (the husband of Nielsen’s secret paramour), is particularly affected by the current events. He begins to experience disturbing visions of a past he never knew, yet recognizes.
One of the town’s major industries is a nuclear power plant. Some of its employees and overseers are aware of unsavory events connected to the plant’s construction in 1986. But this is not a story about nuclear contamination, or even of government corruption, though there is a bit of both here. As the secrets of the past and the mysteries of the present begin to collide, various characters are forced to relive events they would just as soon have forgotten. In some cases, there is plenty of guilt to be reckoned with; in others, long-held obsessions and jealousies are rekindled.
Co-created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese (writer-director and producer, respectively, of the excellent 2010 crime thriller The Silence), Dark draws comparisons with the red hot Netflix series Stranger Things. (Mainly, I suspect, because the storyline involves a missing child whose fate is intertwined with slightly supernatural happenings. And because there are many ’80s flashbacks.) But Dark lacks the other show’s humorous elements, a sort of blackly comic approach that pays homage to a number of well-loved movies and TV shows from the ’80s. The amusingly nostalgic capers of Stranger Things’ protagonists, especially the pre-teen crew of detectives searching for their missing friend, somehow elevate the story above a hybrid comedy/drama with a touch of crime: its raw, authentic coming of age moments are deeply appealing (and with thanks to the amazing cast). Dark is also a coming of age story that drifts through several adjacent eras of history: one of the strongest aspects of its narrative is that it manages — very effectively — to navigate entwining storylines of two generations: the teenagers who are the missing children’s classmates and their parents. This is yet another subtle way that Dark resembles Stranger Things. As Dark progresses, flashbacks to the teenage years of the town’s parents reveal the sources of the dread and guilt churned up by the current tragedy.
Still, Dark is not a German version of Stranger Things. Its historical vision is distinctive, a past and present filled with angst and cynicism triggered by unsolved disappearances and public corruption. Whereas Stranger Things posits a “normal” town that suddenly encounters some strange alien occurrences, this German community has repressed its secrets, which fester in macabre ways. If the story’s tone was shifted slightly, some of Dark‘s complex plot elements would border on soap opera, given that they interweave extramarital intrigue and teen romance. But the writing here is tight, the acting uniformly good, and the overall atmosphere, setting, and pacing are suspenseful. The first season was critically lauded; a second season is currently in production.
It should be noted that over the last several years an inordinate number of series have pivoted around the plot convention of a child that goes missing. We’ve seen this in Stranger Things, of course, but also The Killing (a Danish series remade for US audiences), the French series Le Forêt, and, among others, the British offerings The Missing, Requiem, and The Disappearance. Dark is kicked off by the mystery of a missing child, which is followed by a second and then a third. The connections nurtured by these vanishings are complex, unexpected, and very unnerving. No doubt the disappearance of a child draws on the collective anxieties of parents, but the consistent supernatural overlay suggests that something more is going on. Might this be some sort of unconscious coping mechanism we seek out as audiences (and that creators are happy to deliver to us)? A way to deal with our apocalyptic nightmares for the upcoming generation — by dunking our fears in the worlds of phantasm and fantasy?
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.