Dark (2017, Netflix)
Written by Baran bo Odar, Jantje Friese, Martin Behnke, Ronny Schalk, and Marc O. Seng
Directed by Baran bo Odar
In 2019, a local teenager goes missing in the small town of Winden, Germany. Police officer Ulrich Nielsen is reminded of his own brother’s unsolved disappearance in 1986 and keeps promising the parents he will find their son. Then Ulrich’s youngest, Mikkel vanishes in the night and the next morning turns up the body of a third boy, dressed out of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Jonas Kahnwald is dealing the suicide of his father two months prior. He returns to school but finds the girl he liked is dating his best friend. Police Charlotte Doppler senses history repeating itself with not only the disappearances but also flocks of birds falling from the sky dead, just like they did in 1986. As characters travel down this winding path of secrets and mysteries, they uncover a profound and shocking truth about Winden that transcends the laws of time and space.
There is absolutely no way to talk about Dark without spoiling details, so let’s get that out there right at the start. Shows like Dark are few and far between, but when they arrive, they make my day. I was reminded of great short-lived strange programs like Twin Peaks or Utopia (look for my rewatch of that show starting next month). Dark is undoubtedly influenced by the small town melodrama and mysterious woods of Twin Peaks. Where Peaks had a lumber mill’s presence looming in the background, in Dark we have the nuclear power plant which is in its last year of operation before its scheduled shut down. But from an aesthetic point of view, I see deep shades of David Fincher slathered across the screen. Those hazy dim greens and oranges are popping up through the ten episodes. Rain is a recurring atmospheric motif, characters sloshing their way through overcast and damp landscapes.
The itch Dark scratches is that of the puzzle box and not the often disappointing ones of J.J. Abrams. The clockmaker H.G. Tannhaus (the name is an apparent double homage) could be a stand-in for the series co-creators Odar and Friese. Dark plays out like an intricate clockwork, each delicate piece clicking into the next, the audience unable to see the whole at first but as gears turn the larger picture emerges. From episode one there is no attempt to obscure that we have supernatural phenomena present. The specifics are pulled into focus with each subsequent chapter, and the finale definitely opens up a lot of new avenues for exploration in the second season.
But, a smart premise and with a creeping atmosphere is not all a show needs to succeed. You need a solid collection of actors and Dark has so many of them. While young characters like Jonas get a featured placement, the series truly comes alive in the later episodes when older characters like Helge Doppler become central to the tale that is unraveling. Due to the nature of the story, we have three actors portraying Helge: his 2019 convalescent and seemingly senile self, his 1986 shy, hermit-like self, and his 1953 curious child self. The way these three interact thematically and eventually literally is stunning.
Dark does the sort of time travel story the way I love it: dark and tragic. Once we know that the boundaries of time are being stretched the typical kinds of questions arise. Are these characters fated to carry out these actions? Is this the tragic result of free will or the hand of destiny forcing the inevitable to occur. These differing viewpoints end up becoming the sides of conflict kept invisible until the final episode of the first season, but they pop up in exciting ways throughout. Numerous paradoxes occur, particularly a device made by Tannhaus to break part of the cycle. The blueprints of this machine come from someone else and bring into question where did she get the blueprints if Tannhaus is the only one who made this machine? I find this sort of mental time puzzle intensely stimulating and fun.
I have no idea where Dark goes in its second season, but it already has me onboard. The show understands that a conceit like time travel is only as good as how you use it to ask philosophical questions. The series creators also get that human drama unrelated to the time travel, yet accentuated by it are what will make viewers keep coming back.