“This is Winden. Nothing ever happens here”, says Ulrich (Oliver Masucci), a family man who can occasionally be found climbing out the bedroom window of a recent widow after a spot of ‘breakfast’. It might sound like your classic horror-thriller set-up: the small sleepy town hit by a sudden tragedy, but it’s clear from the off-set that despite the very recent disappearance of a young school boy things run much deeper than this. Winden may appear to be a quiet town where nothing happens, but the town’s older residents know something. There is hushed talk of events that happened 33 years ago and the haunted looks on parents’ faces betray a fear that seems to say ‘you don’t know the half of it’. The children who attend the same school as the missing boy talk of déjà vu; a “glitch in the matrix”, while the voiceover that opens the series says that “the distinction between past, present and future is nothing but an illusion”. “Everything is connected”, the disembodied voice insists. Something supernatural is afoot.
Jonas (Louis Hofmann) awakes suddenly, drenched in sweat. He has seen his father Michael (Anatole Taubman) in his dreams once again, a few months following his suicide. Without a note or any inclination as to why Michael ended his life, Jonas and his mother (Maja Schöne) embark on the rocky road to recovery, which for Jonas has involved a combination of therapy sessions and medication. He dry swallows one of his tablets and heads downstairs to begin his day. The only issue is, we know Michael did leave a suicide note; a plain white envelope across which he scrawled the words, ‘Do not open before 4th November, 10:13pm’.
The series opens with what, surely, has to be a record number of dramatic set-ups in the first 20 minutes of any show. There’s a suicide, infidelity, a child has gone missing, some creepy caves and a big, imposing power plant that is shot from a striking aerial view in the show’s opening sequence and, later, by a daunted camera from a safe distance behind a barbed wire fence. It would be a lot to take in were the script not so skilfully put together, rapidly building intrigue and fear in equal measure while not overwhelming the audience with the sheer number of themes and people in play.
It can be unnecessarily confusing when a series introduces too many characters and their relatives in one go. How can you focus on caring about the central narrative when you’re still trying to work out if that’s that bloke’s wife or his sister? Dark, therefore, deserves the highest praise for not only having a number of very different and compelling characters, but introducing them in interesting ways. There is no contrived explanatory dialogue; no “hey sis” or clunkily calling people by their first name, yet by the end of the first episode you will know four different but interconnecting families reasonably well. It’s incredibly skilful and seems to happen effortlessly. Take note scriptwriters.
Dark is the first German produced Netflix original series and it makes every effort to make its mark. And succeeds. While the show’s opening voiceover and credit sequence may initially seem overly arty with the potential of being tiringly existential, what follows is a gripping drama with intriguing characters and tantalising mystery. You’d be forgiven for loving the dark and alarming credit sequence too, with its eerie English vocals and uncanny mirrored images that present scenes and characters from the show in fragmented pieces assembled in a creepy, kaleidoscopic formation.
The series sits somewhere between an American drama and a Scandinavian noir in terms of tone, taking the familiar structure of big budget US thriller and imbuing it with the cold, almost sterile chilliness of a crime drama set in a dense, European forest. Although, for this Netflix binge-watcher, a large part of this feeling could be due to the rare treat of a hearing German in place of American accents.
In terms of Dark’s narrative there are striking similarities to Netflix’s runaway hit Stranger Things. We may be the other side of the pond, but here, too, we find ourselves in a small town where supposedly ‘nothing happens’. Not only does the town back onto a thick forest where unexplainable things are occurring, it is also home to a group of young people whose adventures include walking along abandoned railway lines and past a big, looming government building guarded by barbed wire. And a child is missing. That said, this is far from a Stranger Things rip off and could not be more different in tone. Dark will chill you to the bone. It will lure you in… then leave you in the dense forest shivering, scared and desperate for answers.
A huge feature of the show is its astonishing score, ensuring that even those light-hearted moments when the characters are safe at home or with friends don’t feel quite right. Building an atmosphere of imminent danger and paranoia, the sliding chords are reminiscent of Mica Levi’s brilliant score for the film Jackie. It’s unsettling music with more than a hint of melancholy; a kind of desperate wail from times gone by that wraps up the brilliant script, understated acting and Nikolaus Summerer’s foreboding cinematography in a big, ominous bow.
Dark is available on Netflix from Friday the 1st of December.