Cyclical Mysteries: Watching Netflix’s Dark
In early March, my husband and I sat in our car in the parking lot of a Ralph’s. He had just lost his job. We had 60 days to get out of the country if he did not find another. Covid-19 was all around us. We sat, slightly stunned, watching people go into the grocery store. An elderly woman got out of her car, hovered, then gathered her courage like she was gathering stones by a river, shiny and smooth, grey, black, and turquoise. They glimmered in her hands. I imagined her as a bright, endangered bird in the wild of soup cans and instant noodles. The image stayed with me for days.
Around that time, I started watching Dark, the science fiction drama created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese for Netflix. As news about the virus started crawling across my world, I curled into the chaise in the evenings, trying to escape. As our new and jagged reality unfolded, I turned to the show’s uncertainties and found in them a strange comfort.
Set in the fictional rural town of Winden in Germany, the story follows the Kahnwald, Nielsen, Doppler, and Tiedemann families as they stumble through disappearance, murder, and loss. We travel from 2019 to 1986 and 1953. Later, there are other timelines. It would take detailed diagrams to convey all the relationships. In the beginning, what we know is that teenager Jonas Kahnwald carries the thread of the narrative and asks us to follow him, ignorant though he may be, blind and confused about his reality. Like Jonas, Dark demands trust. A willingness to travel even when you don’t understand what’s going on.
Poetry demands this of us sometimes and I enjoyed the surrender. In the absence of stability, perhaps I needed to trust something. As with poetry, I followed the images. A wide, thickly green forest. A bunker in the ground. A series of photographs on a dingy wall, showing people at different ages. This is the human cost of time, the price it extracts.
“We trust that time is linear,” says the narrator as the show starts. In Dark, time is an ouroboros, continually swallowing its tail. The beginning is the end, the characters tell us. The opening credits show a series of mirror images folding into each other. Their chilling similarity tells us that something of the horror will lie in such melding, in repetition. In not being able to distinguish one event from another. The dialogue reflects this sense of circular movement. Characters repeat phrases or words “wieder und wieder”-again and again.
Meanwhile, my Twitter timeline was exploding with people questioning our notions of time-a series of what-is-time-anyway? howls. News articles told us people were getting up later, struggling to sleep, parenting and homeschooling in a jumble during quarantine. We measure time by its finiteness, its endings. The end of the week. The end of the weekend. We had lost our moorings. Days had begun to blend into each other.
In an early scene in Dark, a teacher tells his class about repetition as device in a novel. The show is built around an event that repeats itself every 33 years. Charlotte Doppler tells Ulrich Nielsen: “this has all happened before.” Characters make the same mistakes across time, giving in to their fatal flaws more than once, repeating psychological patterns. There are few jump scares. Real life is horror enough-the results of a mammography screening, a family’s unraveling in the face of loss, acts of malice. The question is not how, we are told. The question is when. There is a sense of circling back, reflected in repeated lines, phrases, visual motifs and scenes. Characters appear in different forms. The question is not who. The question is when.
In the early days of the pandemic, I went outside and listened to birds. The birds came and went, knowing nothing, carrying twigs and sticks to line their nests. Doves with mottled wings. Hummingbirds with feathers blue-black and powdery. Someone opened their mouth to sing. Someone else caught the notes, carried them as far as the river. It was all we could give each other. All we knew to give. Someone said, it would be easy to write about apocalypse, the grind of death creaking through our bones, but write, if you can, of love.
The story of Winden too starts with love. A sense of foreboding hangs over the town. We know it has something to do with the power plant at its center which belches substantial plumes of smoke into sky. A grotto leads to tunnels under the power plant. There is mystery, but the pivotal scene is of a singular and devastating loss. What it means to those left behind. How they respond to it. How it changes them and, as a result, everything around them. “Alles” is the German word for all. Everything. It appears many times in the show. A haunting word that filled my days as the pandemic floated about us and the numbers of the dying rose. At the best of times, what does it mean to speak of “everything”? And at the worst?
Dark is concerned with the dead, with the living who are obsessed with the dead, with resurrection. As some reviews have pointed out, the storyline is complicated-a jigsaw puzzle. The viewer is taken back and forth between several timelines with characters appearing at different ages. Without showing the future except in a few episodes, the show conveys that it could be grim. Characters wish aloud that Winden did not exist. Significant episodes and events take place in 1953 and 1986, both important in terms of radioactivity. (The latter was the year of the Chernobyl disaster.) In an early scene, a woman comes out of a building to see dead birds lying on the ground for as far as she can see. The birds have fallen from the sky and their brown bodies are inert, their feathers lifeless. As I write this, thousands of migrating birds have died in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Nebraska. A tragedy of flycatchers, swallows, and warblers. In the pictures, they are brown, yellow, grey.
Jung tells us it is usual to find a spring or river in the underworld, which is often the spring of forgetfulness, but also of remembrance. Orpheus went down to fetch Eurydice, his lost love. The Greek goddess Demeter traveled to rescue her daughter Persephone when she was kidnapped by Hades. In Dark too, the underland is a strong presence, as source, means, and destination. Characters go down looking for those they have lost: A boy disappears, then his father, then another boy. The people left behind, their families and lovers, wait. In some cases, they wait a long time, the camera capturing their passivity and sorrow, the horror of inaction. Then, unable to wait any longer, they snatch up a backpack and wander into the cave in which it all begins, unravels, ends. The cave becomes a physical symbol of change, a space where people go when they can’t take it anymore, when they absolutely have to do something… anything. Early on, Jonas utters a series of “why” questions. Perhaps, these flutter in our chests as well. In the anguish of its characters, there is a grim solace. A way forward, even if it means confronting one’s fears by entering the grotto that leads to god-knows-where.
By season 2 of the show, we learn that two sides are waiting to control time travel. Light versus shadow. Each side believes they are the light. Between each world, and with each character, the weight of (infinite) choices rests. The characters are flawed, uncertain. There are few clear heroes or villains in this world which makes the narrative complex and satisfying when they do commit acts of selfishness or stupidity. One of the interesting things is how the same character is perceived by different people. “You were always a moron,” Ulrich Nielsen tells Egon Tiedemann.
In another scene, Egon’s daughter Claudia tells him, “You are such a good man. You always have been. The world does not deserve you.”
The anticipation which drives each episode comes not from supernatural creatures or alien invasion but the weight of decision. Human will. In the past few months, as we struggled with questions of will, freedom, and rights in the U.S., the series reminded me of the responsibility of each individual. What each of us does has an effect on everything. Alles.
If the show is about trust because the leap between worlds demands trust, it is also about suspicion as each person starts to discover secrets about spouses, partners, children. There are moments of breaking, the awareness of fragility. A sex worker telling Charlotte Doppler her husband’s penis is shaped like a dill pickle. Ulrich Nielsen questioning his father about his other son’s death. Katharina Nielsen smelling a woman’s shoulder to ascertain her husband’s infidelity. Light and shadow are interchangeable, sometimes dappled by the other.
Namrata Verghese, in her essay “ Netflix’s Dark and Time Travel as White Privilege,” talks about how the story itself would be untenable without its inherent whiteness-”a more racially diverse cast would force the show to engage the material violence non-white time travelers would risk.” Her point that “Black and non-Black people of color may never travel back in time with Jonas’s casual entitlement” is undeniable. It makes me think of Lovecraft Country, where Black characters cannot travel safely even within their own time. Questions around individual identity are at the core of the show, so it is hard to step aside from this rumination on identity.
When Jonas stares back at himself, we shiver because of the recognition but also the lack of it. There are no truths, only stories, Claudia Tiedemann’s boss tells her. You decide what story you want to tell. In that same vein then, I would have liked the show to spend more time on the story of Peter Doppler, who is the series’ most prominent gay character. Bernadette Woller is the only transgender person, a sex worker who lives on the fringes of town…and of the narrative. One way to push back against bigots and transphobes is to tell these stories, and allow these voices into the heart of the narrative-not as fringe, or as an afterthought or special allowance, but as integral to the whole.
Stepping out of the cave, we might wonder who is being left in the underland, even as time has its way with us. Who are we excluding or abandoning? Which of our omissions contain violence?
In his book , Robert MacFarlane speaks of deep time: a sense of time across centuries, as much larger than you or me in the present day. To me, a sense of deep time brings with it both a sense of responsibility and a kind of freedom where we accept the cyclical nature of time. Dark makes repetition comforting in the way poetry makes it comforting. The images and sounds resonate, almost with hypnotic quality. Regina, the girl, looks at her new breasts; the woman checks them for lumps. Charlotte gently picks up a dead bird in 1953 and again in 2019. The patterns seem familiar but are surprising with each reveal. The slow passage of time is visible on their bodies, in lines and wrinkles, but also in the appearance of resignation.
In watching the cyclical nature of time, I was negotiating with my own life and possible changes. The score by Australian-Icelandic electronic composer Ben Frost heightens and reinforces both the sense of foreboding and the cyclical inevitability, as do songs like The Quiet Life by Teha Teardo and Blixa Bargeld which starts-
Maybe this time,
Maybe this time I’ll outwit my past
I’ll throw away the numbers, the keys
And all the cards
Maybe I can carve out a living in the cold
At the outskirts of some city
I extinguish all my recent pasts
Become another man again…
Here in 2020 we might be ‘turning and turning in the widening gyre,’ as Yeats said in The Second Coming, but perhaps the cycle will continue, and will even imbue meaning. A sort of cautious hope. If time is cyclical, what is the point? But if time is cyclical, maybe everything can be fixed in the larger sense. This is the offering that Dark seems to hold out, up until the very end, at which point I may have been bewitched; I remember thinking, perhaps this is only the beginning…
Anindita Sengupta is the author of Walk Like Monsters (Paperwall, 2016) and City of Water (Sahitya Akademi, 2010). Her work has appeared in anthologies and journals such as Plume, 580 Split, One, and Breakwater Review. She is Contributing Editor, Poetry, at Barren Magazine. She has received fellowships and awards from the Charles Wallace Trust India, the International Reporting Project, TFA India and Muse India. She currently lives in Los Angeles, California.
Originally published at https://www.tor.com on November 18, 2020.