Don’t mention the war

27 Sep

BIG SPOILERS FOR DARK!

It feels like Netflix’s Dark has been the sleeper hit of this pandemic summer. Perhaps because it is eminently binge-worthy and rewards obsession; perhaps because its claustrophobic feel suits the current climate. But it’s not your usual ‘must-see TV’: it’s a subtitled series made in Germany.

That a German show should gain traction around the world is a cheering triumph of the Netflix era. Yet, its global popularity could be explained by its somewhat generic nature. Its ‘spooky small town’ is somewhat reminiscent of the village at the centre of Les Revenants, or even Twin Peaks. Is there anything particularly German about Winden?

Despite regular visits to the 1950s and 1980s, the show resolutely refuses to mention either the War or the Wall, apart from a couple of very tiny references (Helge is implied to be the product of a 1940s rape; 80s Hannah refers to the impending apocalypse).

However, one could see the influence of both running through the show’s very DNA. Its characters are trapped in an inescapable loop of destiny, in which all are doomed to repeat their past (and future) mistakes over and over for eternity. The scars of history are everywhere, from the bunker that forms the nexus of a series of murderous events, to the abandoned mine shaft that leads people to the time portal.

In particular, we learn over the course of the series that the sins of one’s ancestors can be visited on those that follow. This is illustrated most grotesquely in the Albers family, where Katharina’s mother Helene is implied to be a young victim of rape who grows up to physically abuse her daughter and ends up killing the elder version of her in a brutal attack that is remembered in the town decades hence. The theme of parents killing children – and vice versa – is repeated several times. This culminates when the Origin, a deformed and blankly evil triumvirate, is revealed as the genetic source of most characters in both worlds, establishing a rotten seed at the heart of Winden’s family trees.

Then we have Winden’s dual nature, split between the worlds of Adam and Eva. Each world is formed by the ideology of its respective shadowy cabal – groups that slavishly obey their dear leaders in pursuit of a better future. Young people, recruited into these cultish groups, are groomed through repeated violence and inducted into lying and killing with practiced ease.

Of course, this is not just about the past; as in many places across the world, Germany has its share of modern extremists.

I’m not versed enough in German religious culture to tell you if the show’s suspicion of the church is typical, but Noah’s role as creepy curate is reminiscent of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights. There is a moral vacuum at the heart of Winden that can’t be filled by the Church, or indeed by Adam and Eva’s pursuits of power.

Winden is a town soaked in blood and violence. And yet, it is unremarkable.

We also see the changing role of nuclear power throughout the series, first vaunted as an agent of progress, then danger, and finally decommissioned in the modern era. However, it is also at the root of the apocalypses that engulf the world, and suggests a deep anxiety.

So, despite its insistence on ‘not mentioning the War/Wall’, Dark is not able to fully escape Germany’s history, nor, indeed, its present. Although the Netflix era poses the danger of a homogenised culture, Dark reminds us that no matter how we try, we can never erase the past.

Recommended: Namrata Verghese’s exploration of time travel and white privilege in Dark.

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