I recently finished watching all 3 seasons of the German sci-fi series whose title is translated as The Dark. It is all available on Netflix, and I was watching with the option to hear it all overdubbed by American actors, with subtitles whenever the viewer was expected to understand text in the scene (including “POLIZEI”).
I suppose the following contains SPOILERS, although I cannot give away the entire plot in too much detail as I didn’t follow all of it and am not convinced it makes any sense even by the logic established in the series.
The story is set in the town of Winden. I don’t think the exact regional location of this town is mentioned, although it was definitely in the territory of the Federal Republic prior to reunification, and might not be far away from Marburg, since one of the characters is revealed to be on the run from police due to a crime he committed there. Winden has a nuclear power station that opened in the 1950s, and that is the employment for many of the townspeople. The action begins in 2019, with a middle-aged man hanging himself, leaving behind a sealed envelope and instructions it should only be opened after a certain date. In parallel with this, we also see events at the same dates in 1986. At both times the town was affected by police investigations searching for missing boys. The disappearances are linked to an underground shelter in one of the big houses in the area.
At various times we see charts on the wall in this shelter and elsewhere, showing the links and identities between characters at different times and places.
Characters are able to drift between times by passing down the cave entrance nearby in the woods.
We soon realise that the man who killed himself at the start in 2019 was in fact also a boy who went missing in 2019 and reemerged in 1986, where he was then adopted and lived a new life, meeting again the adults he knew in the future as teenagers, and watching them grow to become the people he’d already met.
The presentation of detail from the 80s is done with care and attention, and we are shown the background of adverts, posters, pop music and videos from the time. Listening the the American voices perfectly fits the 1986 teenagers who were trying to follow US Breakfast Club models anyway.
We learn that there is a 33-year cycle to events in the town, going back even beyond the 1953 inception of the nuclear installation. Someone linked to the installation has been performing strange experiments with nuclear particles, and this also involves forcing the kidnapped children to be exposed to the radiation and time travel. We visit Winden in 1920 and it turns out that the mystery society that wants to control time started in 1887, with a Jules Verne-ish collection of electrical condensers and generators operated by men and women in plain dresses and suits, who are in fact travellers adrift from the 21st century and trying to fix the town’s history.
There is at least one authentic old 19th century optimist who hopes that all this experimenting can help Man to escape History.
In the later seasons we find out that there are rival factions trying to control the tortured knot of events, and that they are lead by figures who call themselves “Adam” and “Eva” although they are in fact the older versions of the hopeful lost adolescents who set out from Winden in 2019. In amongst this story are sub-plots about adults trying to fix their pasts by returning to 1986, or just resettling in the 1950s.
The obvious comparison for this series would be David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but unfortunately The Dark doesn’t compare well. I simply couldn’t care for all these unlikeable, humourless people, especially once we start to get huge portentous speeches about Time and Destiny and other problems of metaphysics dumped on screen in lieu of being dramatised. The watch-fixer/amateur scientist with his info-dumps of pop-physics is also a nuisance. There are plenty of opportunities for poignancy about loss and lost alternatives, yet this show could never bring tenderness to the screen in the way Lynch could manage, with his masterful switches of tone. Twin Peaks had its own background Superplot and macroverse that explained it all, but its creator sensibly held it all back in reserve and kept the sense of strangeness all the way to the end, even after the superb sequence “saving” Laura Palmer. With The Dark I was quite bored by the start of season 3 and I’m sorry to say I didn’t get all the twists I thought were possible.
The trick of starting an episode with a sequence that is interrupted by a character waking from a dream gets quite tiresome, particularly as the show never tries the Bunuelian twist of having a dreamer inside another dream. Is it all a dream anyway? As the detective notes in season 2, nobody seems to leave Winden, and we don’t see many elements of it after the first season: just the woods, the cave, a few houses and not much suggestion of any transit time between them, nor any indication of the ageing years between the Old and Young versions of these characters. The latter point made me wonder if Adam was lying about who he used to be, and it does seem to be that one of the versions of Jonas he was interacting with wasn’t the one he evolved from. Tannhaus was awfully lucky he worked out how to attach Ulrich’s mobile phone to his time machine, and the battery never ran out in decades. It is unclear whether “the Apocalypse” actually ended all life elsewhere on the Earth, in its immediate aftermath we heard about damage across the world, but nowhere else seems to exist or matter much after 2020.
The metaphysics of time travel in this show varies: we have some idea of fixed points, whose existence frustrates any attempted murders or suicides that would break the pattern. The pattern is inscribed in notebooks that the schemers try to obtain or alter, and the time travel equipment is caught in a loopback of its own creation, so nobody ever invented it. Yet this Block Universe view is challenged, when it seems the schemers are hoping to succeed in re-engineering the pattern. There are references to “the cycle repeating” which may be the attempt to restart the reactor for one more run in 2052, 33 years on from the 2019 Apocalypse. However some dialogue suggests the characters see themselves as looping around in the cycle between 1887 and 2019, an eternal recurrence of their personal subjective time, which is simply incoherent. The loop existed at the points of its existence; it is not enduring or persisting or still “going on” later in any other sense than any linear sequence of events.
Finally, the show breaks its own rules by having the timeline fixed with a single intervention late one night, preventing the accident that cause the heartbreak that inspired etc etc. Why don’t the young couple just die in a different accident later, to fit the pattern that has been inscribed? There is an attempted explanation in the claim that “time doesn’t flow at the moment of Apocalypse” or whatever it was, but that can only be taken as “never mind what we said earlier”. Which is painful because it was so grating to hear those pronouncements when they were thundering out of very important elderly Germans who don’t have a clear story of how they gathered their wisdom.
One odd feature of this story that will strike any non-German born before about 1990: the selection of dates visited entirely elides any engagement with the Nazi period, which is also not mentioned by anyone in the 1950s, and World War One only seems to get the briefest of mentions when we go to 1920. There is of course a great tradition of British commentary on the course of German history, and the general failure of foreigners to “come to terms” with their country’s past, whichever country it might be. Maybe we should give that a rest, at least until we’re quite sure we’re comfortable with talking about all the things that happened in British history, and who exactly these people we put up statues for really were.
Perhaps The Dark is trying to allude to that history with its saga of unspeakable horrors in the past, and the yearning to step outside history and correct it, or at least adopt a standpoint to resolve its mysteries. Maybe W.G.Sebald and Anselm Kiefer were the writer and the designer who should have been commissioned to make this series. Germans have been writing allegories about that history even when it was going on, Ernst Junger’s On The Marble Cliffs was published in 1939. The Dark does certainly bring in epigraphs from various German thinkers who have mentioned time and its enigmas. Does anyone else think the electromechanical time machine given to Tannhaus bears a passing resemblance to the calculating machine invented by the great enlightened one G.W.Leibniz? I don’t think we ever see a citation for dear old Martin Heidegger either, so here he is: