“A person lives three lives. The first ends with the loss of naivete, the second with the loss of innocence and the third of life itself.”
In the German town of Winden, surrounded by forests and dominated by a vast nuclear power plant, Dark traces the secrets and desires of an inward-looking community over three generations. Originally marketed as a sort of Stranger Things for adults, the first series started to break new ground when it was revealed that the three timelines (1953, 1986 and 2019) were in direct communication with each other through a time portal buried deep in the caves under the power plant. By the end of the first series, the protagonist, Jonas, had begun to realise this and, despite some macabre twists, seemed on the way to putting things right. Children lost in another timeline can, after all, be brought home, can’t they? The villains had been revealed and, though their ultimate motivations were still obscure, seemed human and ultimately defeatable. Now the portal had been discovered all that was needed was for Jonas to learn how to control it and to put everything/one back in their proper place.
Showrunners Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar had bigger plans for Dark however. Odar’s previous films, The Silence (2010) and Under the Sun (2006), like Dark, orientate around traumatic incidents happening to children in the mid-80s. They explore how the lasting effects and collective memories of these moments of violence are passed from generation to generation and eventually affect every part of a community. The Silence in particular jumps between the 80s and present day in a small forest town that has much in common with the landscape of Winden. Here too, terrible things happen in the brightest midday sun, in gently blowing golden fields and by beautiful secluded lakes. Baran explores the cinematographic style he employs so effectively in Dark, the camera suddenly shooting way up above the action to show the characters dwarfed by the immensity of the unreadable forest around them, following beetle sized cars picking their way through a motionless landscape. The characters are stoic and doomed, trapped in a community that is unable to learn from or leave behind the tragedies that have rocked it.
Friese and Odar’s most recent collaboration, tech-thriller Who Am I, takes up this theme in a different setting. The film centres around a young, alienated hacker drawn steadily into a deadly world from which he cannot escape. “If I had known how everything’s gonna happen. I would have done everything differently”, says the hero in voice over as the film begins, but as he narrates his childhood it is clear that even he is seduced by the sense that, for him, everything was inevitable, even his being orphaned so young, “the best material for a hero’s origin story”. In Dark Friese and Odar use their genre-savvy to tackle this sense of meta inevitability head on. If the dominating question of the first series was not ‘where is Mikkel’ but ‘when is Mikkel’ (now available as a T-shirt), the engine of the second series that drives both the writing and the suspense for the audience is not ‘how can Jonas save everyone’ but ‘why can’t he?’ The creeping sense of dread established by the first series, grounded heavily in the droning music and hardened faces of veteran Tatort actors in the cast, is put to powerful effect in communicating the horror of predestination. As much as Jonas and his allies struggle to change events so they are thwarted by opposing characters and even opposing versions of themselves. The paradox of Dark managing to create dramatic tension while at the same time positing the constant threat that nothing can change is testament to both the writing and the acting.
The shows gains a sense of depth from the welter of references hidden in moments of off-hand dialogue and half seen diagrams glimpsed in the background. These have already provided fertile ground for the fans and the Dark Reddit is flush with complicated theories. The alchemical Emerald Tablet is seen tattooed across a character’s back, an anonymous letter to the police quotes from Freud’s Notes on Hysteria and a child’s description of a time-traveller as a “white devil” suggests Webster’s tortuous amoral moral revenge drama of the same name. When the story opens, Jonas’ paramour Martha is starring as Ariadne in a school play,. This links her not only with the Greek heroine, abandoned by her lover that she helped guide out of the labyrinth (the labyrinth and the Minotaur are unsurprisingly referenced repeatedly in the show’s symbology) but could be referencing, as one acute fan pointed out, Ariadne’s Thread, a logical methodology whereby a problem is solved by blindly testing every possible outcome.
Whether Dark manages to bring these elements together in its third season remains to be seen but the permeating sense of dread it inspires and its ambition in addressing vast, solemn ideas while still packing in twists and moments of pure cathartic tragedy elevate it to one of the greats of sci fi television.
Again and again and again