Scandi Noir Stranger Things? Far From It: Netflix’s Dark Reviewed

by Oliver MacNamee

I know I’m late to the party on this one, but I imagine not many have yet to dive into the German produced gloomy sci-fi saga that dropped in December to very little fanfare on Netflix but has been met with high praise from critics. So, if not, then read on, as this was one of the most impressive little unassuming shows of the year and you could always make it your New Year’s resolution to watch it. It’s a resolution you won’t break once you do as I found it grippingly addictive, having stayed up to the wee hours of the morning to finish it off this weekend, and before a very rowdy New Year’s Eve.

Too many people have already compared to the runaway success of Stranger Things, and I get that. But, it’s so much more than that. Yes, they both have a setting of the 80’s, but in the case of Dark, it’s because one of the several timezones people travel to and from is 1986, and a small German town of Winden, surrounded by suitably frightening forests. You see, while Stranger Things is very much the bastard son of HP Lovecraft and therefore more a product of the American horror genre and its focus on The Ancients of Lovecraft and other dark dimensions, Dark is a sci-fi whodunnit that tantalisingly fills the viewer in on events, characters, and relationships, while filling the shadows with mysterious, seemingly ageless heroes and villains who seem to both want the same thing: to master time and time travel.

It starts, as many a whodunnit does, with a body. Or, rather two. One adult suicide and one infanticide. Michael Kahnwald’s suicide leaves his son, Jonas, in limbo, while he deals with this and an ex-girlfriend who has hooked up with his friend while he was away. Where he went is revealed later on in the series, but it ain’t France as he’s been telling everyone. It would seem that Jonas was a trouble teenager even before his dad took his own life. Or, was it simply his destiny?

Jonas Kahnwald played by Louis Hofman

As a time-travelling based story, it plays with this notion on and off throughout. If we could travel through a wormhole and back through time (or, even forward) could we change the past to influence the present? Or, is everything circular in nature? Is the universe destined to repeat itself every 33 years, as the planets all align and events mirror themselves from 33, 66 years in the past? In 1986, in 2019 and even in 1953, where the later episodes take us to witness the birth of the nuclear power plant that seems to have something to do with the odd goings on in Winden, a town that is forever grey and ready to be saturated with rain at any moment. And, I suppose, in the nuclear power plant we have our Hawkins Laboratory equivalent. A place of industry on the surface, but with something darker lurking beneath. So, another Stranger Things connect for those looking for ’em.

As for the ever present clouds and rain? Talk about pathetic fallacy! The meteorology of Winden certainly reflects the moodiness and sorrow of so many of the characters who have their own real life problems to deal with alongside the growing time-traveling plot. Lost children, failing businesses, and marital affairs.

But digging even deeper–and considering why so many others have compared it to Stranger Things–I feel that there is a more fundamental difference that makes Dark the better series. There, I’ve said it. Dark is better than Stranger Things. And here’s why.

Part of Stranger Things appeal is surely the nostalgic fuzz it conjures up. There is ample evidence that this show is as much an original story as it is a homage to 80’s movies; American 80’s movies. But Dark is flavoured by a more ancient influence. The wormhole that allows many a character to travel through time is situated in a cave, in the middle of the forest. It’s clearly been created by a higher order, but who that might be is never revealed. For now.

It immediately brings to mind–for me at least–the folktales of Germany and the brothers Grimm; all foreboding and forbidden forests where danger lurks if you’re daft enough to venture off the beaten path. This is a story that deals with primeval dangers we can all relate to, mixing it with science fiction, but not in an obvious way. There are no shiny gadgets that blink, whizz and work at 88mph only, but dusty clockwork cogs and time paradoxes that will have your head spinning as we get to know the different characters across three different time periods. It certainly doesn’t talk down to its audiences and certainly doesn’t rely on filling each scene with nostalgic knick-knacks. It very much a lo-fi sci-fi filtered through the lens of Scandi noir sensibilities thanks to co-creator and director, Baran Bo Odar. Helped out, it must be said, by an appropriately brooding, subdued but sublime, soundtrack by Ben Frost.

Like any freshman series, it assumes a second series, so do be ready for the inevitable annoyance of the series’ cliffhanger that only promises even more revelations and a further timeline to be explored in the next series, which will be happening, thankfully, as Netflix has renewed this one.

Ulrich Nielsen, played by Oliver Masucci

As well as a great, sympathetic turn from the previously mentioned Louis Hoffman as Jonas Kahnwald, the series is littered with powerful, moody performances, no more so than in the troubled local copper, Ulrich Nielsen, played by Oliver Masucci, who lots his brother 33 years ago, only to find he has now lost his son in the present. Needless to say, he becomes a man possessed and ready to do anything to try and change the course of time. And, he’s not the only one.

I could wax lyrical about this show for a good while longer, but I would rather you watch it yourself and discover the show and its protagonists and antagonists. Do look out for the priest Noah, a strange man seemingly out of time and with a rather menacing tattoo on his back depicting the Emerald Tablet, itself a rather enigmatic ancient artifact that would suggest that whatever is behind all of this is much more ancient, and darker, than anyone could ever imagine! It may be set in a gloomy, grey, small town, but the powers at play here would seem to be far more majestic and menacing, maybe.

Can either the agent of good or evil really rewrite history for either bad or good? Or, are we all stuck in an ever revolving, ever repeating cycle? Destined to live our lives following a preordained path, or free to chose our own mistakes and our own futures?

Only time, I suppose, will tell. I just wish I could fall down a cave and transport myself to later in 2018 for the second series.

Noah, the priest with the enigmatic tattoo.