‘Dark’ is the addictive German series about a missing teenage boy that pays homage to the 80s, Stephen King and Lynch – we speak to the show’s creators
If your winter viewing schedule has been looking a little bleak since you back-to-back binged on Stranger Things 2, we have some good news for you: the brand new Netflix series Dark has arrived just in time to fill the gaping supernatural hole in your life. It is the streaming platform’s first ever German commission, conceived by filmmaker Baran bo Odar and writer Jantje Friese, and centres around four families in the small industrial town of Winden, where the disappearance of a teenager has shaken the tightknit community. Add to the mix the recent suicide of a local father, the cryptic note he left behind inscribed with the words “Do not open before November 4th, 10:13 PM”, and the impending closure of Winden’s once-lucrative nuclear power plant and we soon come to realise that the boy’s disappearance is just one thread in a complex web of intrigue, deceit and supernatural goings on rooted in the town’s storied past.
The first episode opens with a quote from Albert Einstein which reads, "The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion" – and it’s a dogma that underscores the entire show. Prepare yourself for endless clue-hunting and multiple leaps back and forth in time (allowing for a welcome return to the 1980s, with a distinctly German twist) as the tension escalates, propelled by another disappearance when a group of Winden youngsters head into the woods and return a member short.
“Netflix approached me and Bo in 2015, after they saw our film [2014 hacker drama] Who Am I?” explains Friese, sitting next to Odar in Berlin’s Hotel de Rome, a week before Dark’s launch. “Initially they wanted to make it into a TV series, but we felt we’d shut the door on that project so Bo said, ‘We’ll pitch you something else.’ We rushed back and started looking through old projects: there was a crime drama we’d developed for the UK market a couple of years ago and a feature film about time travel, and we just thought, ‘How about we combine the two.’ Netflix really liked the concept and here we are!”
While Dark’s conception sounds simple, its realisation proved a whole different matter. “This is our first TV series, and they work completely differently from feature films,” Friese explains of the intense writing process. “In terms of things like how you build character arcs, how you end an episode, where you put your cliffhangers. And then, because our narration is so multi-layered, we had to always be thinking about what the audience knew, what we as filmmakers knew and what the characters knew at every single stage. It takes a whole lot of thinking!”
For inspiration during this time, Odar and Friese looked back to some of the formative references that defined their own teenage years. “The 80s was a big inspiration,” says Odar, “and Stephen King. We both loved It. Back then that book really messed me up!” Twin Peaks was another key influence, he explains, a reference easily felt in the series’ dark, surrealist themes and cast of curious characters, including a wild-haired, pyjama-clad old man, who takes to the streets muttering prophecies.
Once the laborious task of scriptwriting was complete, Odar and Friese set their mind to the equally daunting logistics of shooting. “We initially thought about getting another one or two directors on board,” says Odar, who ended up directing all ten episodes himself. “But I have a big ego and I knew that Cary Fukunaga shot eight episodes of True Detective, so I decided to do all ten,” he adds with a chuckle. In fact, he concedes, it was more a question of budget and timing. “We realised it would be much easier to shoot in a location-chronological way and to treat the whole shoot like one huge, long feature film.” As a result, filming took place over 100 consecutive days, the first half of which comprised countless nighttime shoots in the bleak German winter of 2016. “I spent the first part of the shoot either dirty, wet or crying!” 20-year-old actor Louis Hofmann – one of Dark’s most promising stars in the role of Jonas, a teenager haunted by his father’s mysterious suicide – later confides.
“It’s that creepy feeling of suburbia; everything seems normal until you notice there’s something really weird going on beneath the surface” – Baran bo Odar
Happily, the cast and crew’s hard work paid off, as did the lengthy editing process that the vast quantities of footage required; Dark’s first three episodes prove a thoroughly compelling and ultra stylish watch, complemented by an undulating score from Fortitude’s Ben Frost. “Visually Gregory Crewdson, the New York photographer, was a huge influence,” explains Odar of the series’ theatrically lit mise-en-scènes, which often frame the characters enacting wordless tasks as if on stage. “I bought all of his photo books, showed them to every department and said, ‘This is our look.’ It’s that creepy feeling of suburbia; everything seems normal until you notice there’s something really weird going on beneath the surface.”
There’s no doubt that the cinematography, lighting and set design result in a very specific, dystopian aesthetic that serves to sustain a near-constant air of unease – much like that of French zombie series Les Revenants or lesser known Swedish TV thriller Jordskott. But, appropriately for Netflix Originals’ first German offering, the sense of “angst” that pervades the world of Winden, is definitively Deutsch. “There’s this darkness that seems to surround Germany. From the outside it’s very obvious, but often Germans themselves don’t see it,” Friese reflects. “We think we’re very funny,” Odar chips in with a laugh. “We had two World Wars,”continues Friese. “We started them, we killed a lot of people, and we, as kids, grew up with that as part of us. In school we talked a lot about why it happened, why people turn bad, reflecting on dark human behaviour. And I think that’s reflected in Dark’s approach to such themes.”
“Not knowing what will happen to our world is a scary question right now” – Baran bo Odar
That’s not to say, however, that the show’s appeal is not a universal one. As Odar observes, the entire world seems hungry for pop cultural offerings with a chilling, supernatural spin. “Not knowing what will happen to our world is a scary question right now,” he says. “Regarding a certain president overseas and another crazy one in North Korea. As a filmmaker you can’t help but respond to the society around you, which in turn, you hope will appeal to viewers. It’s on everyone’s mind.” To summarise: if you’re on the hunt for an addictive thriller which raises timely questions in a mystical manner, with elements of Donnie Darko, Back To The Future and Nordic noir thrown in for good measure, this one’s for you.
“Dark” is on Netflix now.