To watch Baran bo Odar‘s Dark, Netflix’s moody German-language chiller, is to be constantly feeling like you’ve lived in its world before. As has been pointed out by numerous critics, there are vague similarities with Stranger Things in its mixture of the confusion of small-town life as a teen and the horrors and wonders of the supernatural, but that’s hardly the only familiar influence. Its narrative, centered on a small German community in the throes of panic following the suspected return of a notorious kidnapper and murderer of young men and boys, brings to mind the moody, nerve-rattling storytelling found in The Missing, True Detective, and The Returned. And like those shows, the focus here is primarily on atmosphere, thanks largely to Odar’s direction, DP Nikolaus Summerer‘s sensuous cinematography, and Ben Frost‘s striking score. But there’s a consistent feeling that the series is so similar in look and tone to other hits (cult or otherwise) that it’s about to cross the line into predictable.
Dark toes that line but it never actually crosses it, at least not in the first three episodes of the ten-episode series. Indeed, the series echoes the same eerie inflections of imagery and sound that made Odar’s excellent breakout film, The Silence, so thrilling and hard to shake. In a way, Dark can be seen as an expansion of that chilling tale, also centered on the search for a missing teenager, seeing Odar returning to his most successful formula following his miserable American debut, Sleepless. In pushing beyond the structure of a simple procedural, Odar, who created the series with writer Jantje Friese, envisions a nuanced community wrecked by suspicion, regret, death, and fiscal woes, a world where a notable drop in revenue for local businesses can lead to a creeping disinterest in justice and decency.
Beginning with 16-year-old Jonas (Louis Hofmann), whose father’s suicide opens the pilot, the series takes time to explore the aftermath of Jonas’ life and his return to school with his friends, as well as the messy interlocking relationships of the town’s adult population. Those would be most prominently represented by detective Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), his wife, Katharina (Jördis Triebel), and his lover, Hannah (Maja Schöne), who also happens to be Jonas’ mother. Friese, who wrote or co-wrote the entire series, melds these two sides of the story confidently, and the dialogue rarely telegraphs the machinations of the plot. And when one of Nielsen’s sons becomes the third child to be taken by an elusive predator in the nearby woods, Odar exemplifies a masterful sense of pacing, ably exploring both the deeply disturbing actions of the killer and the aftermath of the disappearances and murders in the small town.
Unfortunately, for all this alluring style and technical proficiency, Dark doesn’t have all that much to say about anything. Where the second season of Stranger Things conveyed a panoply of ideas about adolescent sexuality and coming of age, Dark feels strangely one-note, elevated purely by the increasing eccentricity of the plot, which eventually tip-toes into the science-fiction realm when time travel becomes a major element of the story. The less said about that the better, for the sake of spoilers, but all of this only goes toward moving the plot forward. We’re left to assume much of the inner emotional lives of these numerous characters, which flattens the interactions that aren’t directly related to the central series of crimes.
This isn’t to say that Dark isn’t engaging, just that there’s little to chew on beyond what you’re seeing directly on screen. The acting is largely impressive, the imagery is stirring and involving, and the story is nimble enough to keep the viewer guessing. For those looking for a new binge-watch and don’t go apoplectic over the idea of reading subtitles, Dark could very well prove to be addicting. If you’re looking for something relevant or even resonant, however, Dark may very well be a deeply frustrating experience.
Rating: ★★ – Fair
Dark arrives on Netflix in full starting December 1st.