Review: Dark

by Tom Grundy

Dark, the German Stranger Things for grown ups
October 22, 2019 Tom Souvarine

Season 2 of Dark, Netflix’s German-language science fiction drama, was released on June 21st.

Dark’s first season appeared on my ‘Recommended’ list on Netflix one day last year, untrumpeted — an intriguing thumbnail of a cave. It smacked of opportunism on the part of the algorithms. ‘He likes science fiction and watches a lot of 80s films — let’s chuck this his way, he’ll probably go for it.’

I was transfixed. Dark is a beautiful, strange experience. It is worth your time. 

In a small, rural town in Germany, children start disappearing. Residents quickly draw parallels to disappearances at other times in the town’s past: the 50s and the 80s. We are introduced to several different families whose lives intertwine — everyone has secrets, desires, and regrets. 

So far, so It. There’s even a yellow raincoat. 

Shots mainly comprise chiselled German people gazing at each other, or at photographs, to an ethereal soundtrack. This is gentle science fiction in the mould of classic Stephen King. It’s not gentle in content, though! All the requisite elements are there: the dead children; the insular rural town; the melancholy inhabitants battling their own demons, revisited throughout their lives; and the central mystery that goes mostly unexplained. It has a dreamlike kookiness like Donnie Darko and some of the zeitgeist of Stranger Things. It is subtler than these influences though — more about the characters’ inner lives than the supernatural menace that prods the plot along. 

The central conceit of the plot is time travel, but there are no intrepid adventurers dashing about and manipulating events. Dark’s time travellers are hopelessly lost, adrift in time and without agency.

Dark is overwhelmingly about sadness. Melancholy pervades every frame. Events are tragic, and the time travel only throws this into sharp relief: in one scene, a woman travels into the future not to meet robots, but to hide in a garden and see her daughter cadaverous from cancer and chemotherapy. Dark is all about how little control we have over our lives — far from mastering time, we are swept along by it helplessly. 

The message of the series is also about the impact we have on those around us. The characters’ casual kindnesses and cruelties touch those they share their lives with and ramify down the years. Seeing characters’ actions have dramatic effects on their older selves is one of the show’s charms; it is like watching a net of circumstance slowly draw closed around them, as they are enmeshed by the weight of their decisions. Their regrets seem to fill the set.

Season Two, oddly, answers some of the questions posed by Season One in the first couple of episodes, but others not at all. It is all densely-plotted. Characters zip about the timeline more, and more of them do so — which has the effect of diminishing the gravity of the time travel somewhat. We are introduced to two factions pitted against each other for the fate of the town. To the series’ credit, there is ambiguity over which of these we should be rooting for.

The second series ends with a customary ‘WTF’ bombshell. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a risk that the third season will tack towards action and conflict, and away from the low-key mystery that defines the enchanting first season.

Dark is Stranger Things for grown-ups. Full of sensitivity, melancholy, and mystery, it’s a slow burn — but meatier than most of its inspirations.