Every Thanksgiving, I fly back to Boston, where the first thing I’m inevitably asked is, “seen anything good lately?” My high school friends and family are always looking for something good to watch, be it a movie or TV series, and they almost always take my recommendations seriously. This year, however, they shrugged. Why, you ask? Because I was raving about DARK, a new Netflix show that may be the next great sci-fi series… if people are willing to read subtitles.
That’s right, Dark is a German-language show, as well as Netflix’s first German production. That means subtitles, and while they may not pose a problem for you or I, you’ll have to forgive me for being cynical about the average American audience member. Of course, Dark represents a global play for Netflix, which counts Narcos (featuring lots of Spanish dialogue) as one of its most successful shows. But judging from people’s responses this past weekend and the general lack of buzz around Dark, I shudder to think how often foreign-language programming is written off when folks sit down to decide what to watch together.
Those viewers who aren’t afraid of a little reading will be rewarded for their efforts. Dark is a ten-episode series set in a German town in present day, where the disappearance of two young children takes on a supernatural twist that ties back to the same troubled town in 1986. It’s like a German Stranger Things, though believe me, we’re miles from Amblin’ territory here. Dark isn’t some feel-good coming-of-age story. It’s about a community haunted by a secret. A sense of dread permeates everything, as if the town (itself nestled in the shadow of a nuclear power plant) is soaked in doom and despair. Like Hawkins, Indiana, you get a sense that this town really is cursed. There’s a reason that SlashFilm called this show “Back to the Future with a body count.”
Dark hails from writer Jantje Friese, the acclaimed production company Wiedemann & Berg (The Lives of Others) and director Baran bo Odar, who impressed me with his 2010 feature The Silence. The Swiss filmmaker has a sumptuous eye and his slick visuals enhance the story without threatening to overwhelm the character development. Speaking of which, the cast (you may recognize Antje Traue from Man of Steel) is uniformly excellent without being too showy. International actors tend to be much more subtle and interesting than American actors, who often go “big” with their emotional cues. Take a look at the difference between Broadchurch and its American counterpoint Gracepoint, for example.
In fact, the atmosphere itself practically serves as a lead character, since the series presents a tone that is at once calm and chilling. There’s an ominous cave at the heart of the story, and once you see what’s inside of it, the sinister possibilities are endless. There’s also a mysterious figure (known only as The Stranger) lurking in the shadows of Dark, and while I have an idea as to his identity, I’ll keep that guess to myself for now. What I will say is the mystery is only enhanced by the language barrier, which never allows you to get completely comfortable, and that the subtitles actually serve as an effectively tool in keeping you invested in the labyrinth plot, since they force you to pay attention.
On the outside, Dark may resemble a traditional “missing/murdered child” series, but its supernatural twists bring to mind The X-Files, and I imagine that fans of that series will love Netflix’s latest offering if they can be bothered to give it a chance. The series is a slow burn, but once you fall into a rhythm with the episodes, it’s worth sticking around to watch the bizarre story unfold. It doesn’t hurt that the show features come catchy music, including its theme song, “Goodbye (with Soap & Skin) by Apparat.
Interestingly enough, Dark premiered relatively under the radar at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Netflix had previously debuted two episodes from the third season of Black Mirror. Dark didn’t cause nearly as much of a stir among the press, but only because of its lack of name recognition. Trust me, this one is going to inspire some debate, just like The OA did. How much debate will be up to you. But between Stranger Things, The OA, Black Mirror, and now Dark, what isn’t up for debate is that Netflix is doing sci-fi better than anyone else out there right now. Give this one a chance when it starts streaming December 1. With all the subtitles, Dark may not even be something you binge. But judging from the first three episodes, I think this series shows a lot of promise, and I’m interested to see if it catches on with the zeitgeist.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief