It’s just about possible that this year’s best supernatural TV series comes from Germany. It’s called Dark, it’s available on Netflix since December 1st, so it probably won’t be on any best of lists for this year. It should be. Dark borrows from some of the most favorite horror TV series of the last two or three years; it takes what it can use from the recent Twin Peaks, Les Revenants, True Detective, Stranger Things and others, and distils those borrowed spare parts for long enough to turn into its very own material. There are two things that make it worth your while: it tones down the supernatural element and focuses on its characters enough so it doesn’t have to rely on its McGuffin too much, and it creates its own atmosphere so well that it’s easy to forgive it a few shortcomings. It’s a slow series, ten episodes of about one hour, but some scenes are almost bristling with intensity.
What seems to be a tough case about child abduction or child murders in a drab German town called Winden turns out to be something quite different. In the year 2019, a child goes missing. The body of another child turns up the next morning, but the police simply can’t identify him. The local cop, a passionate guy called Ulrich Nielsen, seems to be in the middle of things from the start: 33 years ago, his brother Mads disappeared without a trace, and now Ulrich’s son Mikkel is missing. Ulrich is also having an affair with Hannah, whose husband hanged himself only months earlier, leaving behind a suicide note that was not be opened – yeah, you guessed it – on the night Ulrich’s son went missing. The kids’ disappearance always seems to happen near the entrance to a cave, which leads to a system of caves, which leads to doors with Latin inscriptions and to hidden exits in the woods, which may or may not lead to the basement of the nearby nuclear power plant. There are scenes that are set in 1986, the year Chernobyl happened, and so the power plant is eyed with suspicion. And then Mads disappears. Is there a connection? And what about all those birds falling from the sky? A meadow full of dead sheep? Since I will give away some major plot points, it’s high time for a SPOILER WARNING.
The clue is that the caves enable you to travel back in time for a 33 year loop. Ulrich’s son winds up not dead, but in the year 1986, and there is another loop that brings you to the Winden of 1953. A handful of characters realise this and go back, either to save the present (by changing or un-changing the past), or because they need to find their children again. The problem with time travel is that it almost never brings the result you want, because there are too many variables to control. As one character yells in frustration: “I’ve got a new grandmother, and her husband, who by the way fucks my mom, is looking for his son, who is my dad! And a few days ago, I’ve kissed my aunt!”
Dramatically, this means that the series travels back and forth in time, too. The parental generation in 2019 is played by younger actors in 1986, and because the casting is really well done, you can almost always tell who is who. There is a whole array of fresh, unused faces; the whole series contains only two actors I knew by sight: there is Angela Winkler, whom you may remember as Agnes Matzerath from Schlöndorff’s Tin Drum, and Anatol Taubman, who is familiar to me because he is Swiss. The series does a great job in evoking 1986, with ads and music videos from that time. Who still remembers that Twix was once called Raider? Who remembers Nena and Dead or Alive? I do. There are only few mass scenes; mostly, characters are alone, in pairs or in small groups, agonizing or antagonizing. There is a kind of existential dread in many scenes, but since you are looking into some kind of temporal abyss while avoiding your younger self or not being seen by your parents who are the same age as you, how can it be otherwise? Travel through time all you want, you will only make it worse.
There are a number of plot holes in the series that are bigger than the cave entrance – barely explained scenes, uncertain connections. The whole business about the two time machines probably doesn’t make sense on closer inspection; and what does the power plant have to do with time travel? Does it advance it? There is, for instance, a character called the Stranger who actively leads Jonas to discover time travel only to warn him in 1986 to not meddle with the past. So what – Jones is supposed to go there as an impartial onlooker. Why not tell him that in the first place? There are also a few characters the series doesn’t know what to do with towards the end, such as Magnus or Franziska. But these are small quibbles, and they only occur once you’re done watching and start to think about the story. While you are watching, you are taken in with what happens to whom and why – and, most of all, when. I, for one, sat there spellbound while some time travellers tried to save their lives and made it worse for almost everyone. It’s not that a series like Dark needs to have a point, but if it does, it might be this one: We know that time travel is likely to make matters worse, not better, so why are we still tempted to go back? Could it be that we are addicted to our memories so that, if we are given the chance to relive some of them, we most likely will?