Netflix’s mesmerizing new German-language series Dark certainly is aptly named. A great deal of the new 10-episode season takes place in dim rooms and unlit garages, in an ominously oppressive forest and a shadowy cave, or under sickly, faltering lighting that suggests a kind of heavy moral decay falling over the world. The series is conceptually dark, full of cheating spouses, ugly secrets, grotesque killings, and dead birds falling from the sky in a hail of limp, twisted bodies. But more noticeably, it’s as physically dark as an early David Fincher movie, and it carries the same level of ominous weight. It’s a series meant to be watched late at night, with the lights off, experienced like a ghost story around a campfire that’s burning down to its final embers.
Netflix’s first original German series — part of a growing foray into international productions, aimed at digging deeper into local entertainment markets — comes from Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, the co-writers and director of 2014’s hacker-thriller Who Am I: No System Is Safe. It has some obvious aesthetics in common with that film. Swiss director bo Odar loves images of sleight-of-hand magic and glowering men lurking deep in the depths of giant hoods, and Dark shares Who Am I’s grimy, heavy cinematography and screaming discordant soundtrack.
But Dark slows down the story from Who Am I’s more frantic pacing, using the space of a 10-hour TV series to establish an entire town of people reacting to a slow-motion series of personal disasters. In that sense, Dark is closer to the original run of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 1990s groundbreaker Twin Peaks, with a steaming nuclear power plant dominating the town instead of a lumber mill. Dark isn’t just about a murder that comes with a disturbing tinge of the supernatural. It’s about a community of people, all with their own problems, and all linked in different ways — both in the present and in the past.
Dark is an ensemble series, but it starts with Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), a police officer and father of three who’s cheating on his wife with a woman whose husband commits suicide in the show’s earliest moments. Her shell-shocked son, Jonas (Louis Hofmann), is part of a pack of rangy pack-animal teenagers who venture into the woods outside their small German hometown of Winden, hunting the drug stash of a classmate who recently disappeared. While they’re out there, Ulrich’s youngest, Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz) also disappears, leading the police to wonder whether someone is targeting local youths. But the disappearances coincide with weird phenomena: animals dropping dead, lights wildly flickering and flashing. Some of the town’s older residents, including Mikkel’s grandmother, mutter about how the new disappearances recall older ones from when they were younger. And a mysterious hooded figure, looking at a newspaper clip reading “Where is Mikkel?”, crosses out the first word and rewrites the headline as “When is Mikkel?”
The answer to that first mystery comes by the series’ third episode, and it raises even more questions — about time travel, official and unofficial cover-ups, and the roles of various authority figures and outsiders. It also complicates the meaning of smaller mysteries scattered throughout the show, like the ornately carved box with the suicide victim’s last letter, which bears a warning not to open it until a specific date and time. There’s a fair bit of “What’s going on?” in Dark, but the more compelling mystery is “Who knows about it?” It’s another link to Twin Peaks: that sense that there isn’t a single murderer abroad, so much as a compelling supernatural mystery, and a web of intrigue around it.
But as with Twin Peaks, Dark is more of a draw for the nightmarish aesthetics, the sense of swoony horror that hangs over this elaborately drawn little world. Dark’s characters aren’t nearly as quirky and oddball as David Lynch’s — they’re more like the dour, desperate stars of a Scandinavian TV series, slowly drinking themselves to death and seeking whatever pleasures they can to compensate for the lack of light and hope in their world. Ulrich isn’t the only one in Winden having an affair. There’s more surreptitious, frustrated lust going on in the town than honest affection. Winden feels a bit like a soap opera in progress, full of secrets and lies. A strong cast full of characters who pull off “angst-stricken and unsatisfied” well contributes to the feeling of an unsettled, untrustworthy world where time-traveling children or era-hopping murderers just seem par for the course.
At least their uncertainty is set in a beautifully rendered world. The jangling nails-on-chalkboard music and the bleak cinematography are off-putting, but in a conscious, controlled way that again recalls David Fincher. And by the end of the third episode, when bo Odar and Friese take time to visually compare the modern-day Winden residents with their younger selves, the series has gone in a lyrical, longing direction that feels miles away from Fincher or Lynch. In this moment, there’s an aching sense of beauty and loneliness to Dark that places it far above the usual procedural mystery or supernatural horror story. Suddenly, it’s not a series about dead birds and dead children, and the question of what links them. It’s about what links past and present, and how easily people drop the promise and premises of youth and become old and tired. Like so much of Dark, it’s a dark and dreary message, presented with an artfulness that becomes beautiful — and inevitably, addictive. Netflix is so often looking for bingeable, c’mon-just-one-more-episode entertainment. With Dark, it has a series that’s both hard to watch, and impossible to stop watching.
In America, Dark premieres on Netflix on December 1st.