It is easy to see why the new Netflix drama Dark (now streaming) was chosen to feature at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It looks stunning.
The 10-part thriller, in German with English subtitles – there's also a dubbed version available – is visually rich, textured and gloomily gorgeous. And gloom is at the heart of much if it. It is aptly titled, since it's essentially about a grim sense of hushed alarm that something has gone wrong in a small community, and while there are clues everywhere about the source of the malevolence, there is futility in fighting it.
Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark is set in the town of Winden, a pleasant place with miles of dense forests and a looming nuclear-power plant that is, everyone believes, about to close down. The forests contain a vast network of caves where, for generations, teenagers have played, flirted and had adventures both sexual and strange. It's where some of them came of age. The caves are an escape but also a venue where the past seems to linger.
The drama opens with a voice-over informing us that Einstein questioned the linear progress of time and that it is better to think of the interconnectedness of past, present and future. Then we see a man commit suicide after writing a note that must not be opened until a certain date.
It is soon clear that the man who killed himself left a family, and his teenage son Jonas (Louis Hofmann) is traumatized by his father's death. Jonas disappeared into therapy and his friends were told he went to France to recuperate. Now back at school, he's stonily bewildered by ordinary life. In fact, he's so preoccupied that he seems to barely pay attention to the fact that a local boy has disappeared and the entire town is in a state of subdued fear. This is one of the aspects of Dark that separate it from Stranger Things, a series that Dark has been linked with in some reviews.This drama stews in a very Teutonic despondency. There is reluctance among locals to acknowledge the doldrums that descend when a child goes missing. Open displays of anxiety create embarrassment.
The series takes a shift into a complex web of time-shifting and layered evil when Jonas witnesses a second boy seemingly vanish in the woods and then a mysterious other figure appears out of the forest – and possibly out of the past. It is suggested that some kind of circular time alteration is happening, what happened 33 years before is happening again and that the past and present are ominously intertwined. This will puzzle some viewers but it's not really all that confusing.
What happened in the 1980s is having an impact on the present – the series is set in 2019 – and it is a matter of dwelling on whether it's good for everyone to be nostalgic for the pop music and candy bars of the 1980s, or it is profoundly foolish. After all, an evil force, perhaps moored inside one person, is still lurking now as it was then.
What sets Dark apart and raises it to the level of truly fine drama is its quietness and beauty. Impressively, it presents adults as vastly complex beings, far more emotionally knotted and mixed-up than the teenagers realize. Jonas's mother, although mourning her husband, has taken a lover and that lover is the local detective who is in charge of the investigation into the missing boy.
The detective's wife is aware but is unsure she really wants to know. These people are troubled, entangled and lonely. In that sense, Dark has far more in common with such series as The Missing and The Returned than it does with Stranger Things.
This is a grim, gripping whodunit, but not the usual procedural. The plotting is not meant to easily satisfy. It is meant to undermine the complacent viewer drawn into its formidable beauty.