Plot Winden, Germany, 2019. A series of unexplained events surrounding child disappearances causes concern and fear of a conspiracy in a remote German town. After the suicide of his father (Michael), Jonas is struggling to adjust to life at high school. Erik, a boy from his school, has been missing for two weeks. The police investigation (led by police chief Charlotte), and the desire of individual families to discover the truth, leads back to 1986, when similar events occurred. After police officer Ulrich’s son Mikkel disappears near the town’s caves, the body of a strange boy is discovered in the woods. The body is Ulrich’s brother who disappeared as a child; and Mikkel emerges from the caves in the year 1986. He is adopted by a nurse under the name Michael, and befriends a young girl, Hannah: they grow up to be Jonas’ parents.
In 1986, the newly appointed head of Winden nuclear plant learns of a blast which led to barrels of nuclear waste being secretly hidden in the caves: the blast simultaneously opens up a wormhole in the caves. As the town’s inhabitants struggle to deal with the tragedy of the missing children, Jonas decides to take matters into his own hands by traveling back to 1986 through the cave wormhole in an attempt to find Mikkel. Ulrich also enters the caves but emerges in 1953. Meanwhile, Erik is held in a cellar by Noah, who is developing a time machine which he tests on the missing children, with the help of his accomplice, Helge. In 1953, Ulrich attempts to kill Helge as a child to reverse the events of the future, locking him in a bunker. Erik’s body is discovered on the construction site of the nuclear plant: his murder is blamed on Ulrich. A time-travelling stranger (older Jonas) seeks to destroy the time loop in order to reverse the child disappearances and murders, and he locks Jonas in the cellar. A wormhole opens up connecting Jonas in the cellar in 1986 and Helge in 1953, as they reach out to each other, Jonas is transported to 2052 into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Film Note Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark (Season 1, 2017) is the first Netflix series entirely in the German language. The series brings together the investigation of a number of child murders, cover ups of accidents at a nuclear plant, and a complex time travel narrative structure. Although there is no access to specific data on audience viewing figures, Dark has been incredibly popular both in Germany and with international audiences. According to Greg Peters, Netflix’s Chief Product Officer, it is one of the most popular non-English language series on Netflix, with over 90 per cent of its viewers from outside Germany (qtd. in Roettgers). The series has received critical acclaim both nationally and internationally, supporting the general consensus of the series’ global popularity. It received a Grimme-Preis award for fiction in 2018, as well as several other nominations, including in the Goldene Kamera 2018 television awards.
Dark and German heritage Dark’s historical engagement deals with the underrepresented German history of nuclear power, including the impact of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster on Europe. The three historical settings of Dark – 1953, 1986 and 2019 – each have a significant role in the historical context of nuclear power in Germany. Plans to build nuclear power stations date back to the 1950s, and Dark effectively represents an overview of the German narrative of nuclear concerns, starting in 1953. The plot depicts the planning stages of building the nuclear plant and these scenes (with the benefit of hindsight resulting from the time-travel narrative) are immanent with the negative impact this will have for the future of Winden and its inhabitants.
The 1986 setting in Dark is set six months after the Chernobyl disaster. Rogers argues that Chernobyl “contributed to widespread suspicion of nuclear power” in Germany. In an interview, Friese and Odar explore their personal experiences as children growing up in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, and the extreme anxiety present in Germany over the use of nuclear power. For example, they explain that if it was raining they would not be allowed to play outside for fear of radiation (qtd. in Rogers). The experiences of Dark’s children in 1986 can, therefore, be seen as directly influenced by Odar’s and Friese’s own childhoods.
In 2011, around 250,000 people joined an anti-nuclear protest in Germany, and later that year the government announced plans to close all nuclear reactors by 2022. Chernobyl is significant in this context due to the impact it had on faith in nuclear power and its safety. The 2019 timeline and its theme of the nuclear plant’s preparations for closure are therefore directly representative of contemporary socio-political concerns in Germany.
Among the most popular contemporary German film genres is the historical drama, or heritage film. Germany’s traumatic and compelling history in national and global contexts has been widely influential: from its role in both World Wars, and the Cold War, to the fall of the Berlin wall and German unification. Heritage films addressing this past have been very successful internationally. Elizabeth Krimmer argues that this cycle of films is governed by the over-simplification of complex historical issues to please a mass audience, and that by doing so they demonstrate an unwillingness to “challenge the status quo of the ‘cinema of consensus’” (81). The aesthetic of the German heritage film replicates that of classical Hollywood through “interest in suspenseful narrative, visual spectacle, and moral binaries” (ibid. 84). Time is also represented according to classical Hollywood’s conventional action-driven cause and effect linear narrative.
Whereas the heritage film conventionally depicts morality as binary and clear-cut, Dark is complex. The audience is able to identify the positive and negative qualities in every character, without limiting them to a binary categorisation. This means that none of the characters is completely likeable in the eyes of the viewer. Whereas one would expect to identify with and emotionally support the protagonist, Dark confronts the complexity of human nature, recognising that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are arbitrary. On several occasions one becomes passionately invested in various characters, only to be confronted with the darker side of their personality, which seemingly undermines their positive qualities. For example, I found myself caring deeply for police chief Charlotte as she tirelessly followed potential leads, desperately trying to uncover the mystery of the missing children, despite her failing marriage. However, her harsh words to Elizabeth following Yasin (Elizabeth’s boyfriend)’s disappearance in episode four presents her as heartless as she relentlessly tries to get information from her crying daughter. The duality represented through the characters’ morality is a theme which epitomises Dark, and is developed further through its exploration of time (which I explore in the next section).
Rogers argues that with the release of Deutschland 83 in 2015, alongside Babylon Berlin and Dark in 2017, “German television appears to be entering a new era”. However, I would argue that the historical period drama genre of the former two series place them as a contemporary extension of German heritage cinema, representing fictional stories within a familiar historical setting. In this way, Deutschland 83 and Babylon Berlin function conventionally within popular culture as exportable television which conforms to the conventions set by classical Hollywood. Although Dark engages with historical themes, its genre, contemporary context, and deconstruction of (cinematic and historical) time set it apart from the others.
The Chernobyl disaster which influenced much of Dark’s narrative has been represented more directly in the HBO series Chernobyl (2019). However, as a US production, this series has both physical and emotional distance from the events themselves, and an American perspective coloured by the complex political history between the US and Soviet Union. Dark, however, explores the political implications of Chernobyl – and nuclear power in general – from less geographical distance and from the perspective of ordinary people caught up in the disaster. Germany was directly affected by the events of Chernobyl, as described by Odar and Friese (qtd. in Rogers). In episode six Jonas travels to 1986, where young Hannah and her father offer him shelter from the rain. Hannah says he shouldn’t stay out in the rain too long because it is acid, and also implies the Chernobyl disaster has had a lasting impact: “People say [radiation]’s not in the rain anymore but I don’t believe it”. This can be seen as directly influenced by the anecdotes of Friese and Odar’s childhood experiences. It also demonstrates the primal existential fear which was triggered across Europe in the late 1980s.
These subtle references occur several times, demonstrating how Dark is able to deal with complex issues whilst maintaining nuance in its exploration of the untold and overlooked wider impact of nuclear disaster. In episode six, hotel owner Regina is revealed to have advanced cancer caused by exposure to radiation from the nuclear plant. This is evocative of the thousands of people who lost their lives as a result of Chernobyl, specifically the thousands of long-term health problems and deaths controversially claimed as not connected to the leaked radiation (Fairlie & Sumner). This resonates with the plot in Dark which follows the controversial cover-up of dumped radioactive waste in caves in the 1980s.
Dark as time-image Dark subverts the conventional linear narrative structure used by heritage films, allowing the series to resonate with Deleuze’s concept of the time-image (26). Conventional German heritage films follow the causality of the action-image, or movement-image influenced by classical Hollywood (Deleuze xi). However, Dark subverts this norm.
Deleuze claims that World War II is a significant turning point in the representation of time in cinema. This is due to the catastrophic global impact of the war but also the ways in which: “the post-war period has greatly increased the situations which we no longer know how to react to” (xi). Deleuze argues that faith was lost in the movement-image of classical narrative, replaced by a questioning of the function of memory and control as a result of the experience of the Holocaust, widespread civilian bombing campaigns, and the loss of millions of lives. In cinema, this results in the time-image. Deleuze argues that in film, time has historically been represented as subordinate to action and movement, and the time-image represents a subversion of this: “[i]t is this reversal which means that time is no longer the measure of movement but movement is the perspective of time” (22).
The German heritage film – and the television series mentioned above that it has inspired – represent a continuation of the action driven narrative of classical cinema’s movement-image. In the time-image, characters exist within time and are controlled by it, whereas in the movement-image time is dominated and controlled by action. Dark’s non-linearity and engagement with the concept of time exemplify Deleuze’s time-image. Time exists independently of the characters, and is capable of controlling them: no matter how much they try to change the course of events, they seem paralysed and unable to act. This reflects Deleuze’s assertion that the time-image uses time to examine uncertainty, reflected through moments of immobility, reverie, or paralysis; thereby subverting the importance of action in the movement-image (36). When Jonas is locked in the cellar by his older self he is figuratively and literally immobile, he is unable to act because he has been imprisoned by a version of himself he does not yet understand.
Deleuze explores the concept of the crystal-image as an important component of the cinematic time-image. Through this concept he explores the split of the real and virtual through representations of present and past. In the passing of each moment he describes the process of the actual – real – present becoming the virtual – imaginary – past through memory. He explores the aesthetic of this duality by using the analogy of mirror images as an example of how actual and virtual become “[d]istinct, but indiscernible” through their “continual exchange” (70). Dark exemplifies Deleuze’s concept of the crystal-image through its narrative and aesthetic. Actual and virtual are indiscernible and exist simultaneously through characters’ memories, and through the element of time travel in which distinctions between past, present, and future are arbitrary. At times it is unclear whether we are being shown the actual or virtual past through the representation of memory. It is this indiscernibility which makes Dark so evocative of the time-image. This is explored through the paradoxical nature of time travel which Jonas is faced with. By saving Mikkel in 1986, he would not become Michael, and Jonas would never be born. In this sense Dark, following Deleuze’s analysis, presents “undecidable alternatives and inexplicable differences between true and false” (132) as Jonas must choose between his own life and the life of his father.
The title sequence (designed by Lutz Lemke) engages with the concept of the crystal-image through its representations of symmetry and kaleidoscopic patterns. In symmetry, actual and virtual (true and false) become indiscernible, reflecting the Deleuzian crystalline narration of the series itself. As Deleuze writes, “[s]ensory-motor situations have given way to pure optical and sound situations to which characters, who have become seers, cannot or will not react, so great is their need to ‘see’ properly what there is in the situation” (133). This concept is developed throughout the series, as the narrative is driven by the desire to uncover the mystery. The recurring images of eyes in the title sequence reflect this, and can be interpreted as an example of Deleuze’s suggestion of characters as seers of optical and sound situations. The distorted mirrored images of bodies in the title sequence also evokes the complexity and ambiguity in the series, which is also explored through the characters’ morality. The title sequence also establishes the main locations of the series: the caves, woodland, roads, and nuclear plant. The distortion of these images in the title sequence suggests illusion and conspiracy: things are not as they appear. It also lends a timelessness to the sequence, as it is not clear in which time period the locations and bodies are being shown. The symmetry effect could therefore represent a reference to the time loop, representing characters and locations mirrored in different moments in time. This is another instance of Dark demonstrating the importance of time and place over action: firmly establishing itself as time-image.
The title sequence also evokes the theme of interconnectivity in the series through splitting and merging images. In Episode Eight, H.G. Trannhaus says that “our thinking is shaped by dualism”. He argues this is wrong, and explores a third dimension represented by the triquetra: future, present, and past. Through this statement of philosophy Dark challenges conventional duality and chimes with Deleuzian concepts of splitting time into “two dissymmetrical jets, one of which makes the present pass on, while the other preserves all the past” (81). It is this quality of splitting that Deleuze argues constitutes the crystal-image. The title sequence, therefore, represents the nexus between time periods and different families in the series. The mirror effect can be interpreted as past and present existing simultaneously as crystal-image. The rotation of images, and hints of clockwork in the title sequence are also evocative of the labyrinthine conception of time which Dark presents: everything is connected.
This connectedness is maintained through the theme of determinism in Dark. It deals with complex philosophical ideas through its exploration of time travel. In classical (movement-image) cinema characters act in order to change their circumstances; however Dark as time-image challenges this concept of free-will. We continuously see characters destined to repeat the same actions again and again in a self-contained cycle (ultimately leading to the apocalypse at the end of Season One). Every action made to break the cycle only reinforces their past and future situation further This demonstrates how movement is represented as subordinate to time. Characters who act in order to change the past inevitably only allow it to happen. In Episode Eight Ulrich tries to kill child Helge in 1953 to prevent his future role in the kidnap and murder of the children. However, Helge survives, and we discover Ulrich’s responsibility for the scarring and deformity of his face and ear. Old Helge also travels from 2019 to 1986 to convince his younger self to act differently. In an attempt to prevent his past actions by causing a car crash, 40-year-old Helge survives, while his older self is killed (Episode Ten). Dark is therefore demonstrating how even the most dramatic attempts to break the cycle inevitably maintain its course. This is also reflected through Jonas’ attempt to close the time-loop, which Noah claims is actually the cause of its creation in the first place.
In each case, the character is unable to act to change their (past, present, and future) circumstances, therefore subverting the conventional function of causality in classical cinema. Dark often reflects this atmosphere through images of characters from different eras side by side, or fading into each other. In each case the character stares directly at the camera, immobile, as if in reverie. This is a visualisation of their function as observers, trapped in the endlessly repeating cycle of the time-image: a further representation of Deleuze’s lack of control.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema II: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. Print.
Fairlie, Ian and Sumner, David. “The Other Report on Chernobyl”. ChernobylReport.org. 6 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 Dec. 2019.
Krimmer, Elizabeth “More War Stories: Stalingrad and Downfall”. The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and its Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Eds. J. Fisher and B. Prager. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. 81-109. Print.
Rentschler, Eric. “From New German Cinema to the postwall cinema of consensus”. Cinema and Nation. Eds. M. Hjort and S. MacKenzie. London: Routledge, 2000. 260-278. Print.
Roettgers, Janko. “Netflix’s Drama ‘Dark’ May Be From Germany, But 90% of its Viewers Are Not”. Variety.com. 6 Mar. 2018. Web. 20 Dec. 2019.
Rogers, Thomas. “With ‘Dark’, A German Netflix Series, Streaming Crosses a New Border”. New York Times.com. 23 Nov. 2017. Web. 20 Dec. 2019.
Written by Elinor Holly Jenkins (2020), Queen Mary, University of London
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