A kid goes missing from a small town. Parents, friends, police and public are baffled. Something strange is going on in the shadows.
Put like that, it’s no surprise Netflix’s new TV series Dark has been compared to Stranger Things. Both series mix sci-fi and mystery to creepy effect. Both series begin as a whodunnit and quickly become more of a ‘whatdunnit’. Both series take you time travelling back to a different era…
Those are the similarities. But there are differences too. Put simply, Dark is, well, darker. Weirder. More wary of nostalgia.
Oh, and it’s in German, but you quickly forget that after watching the first few minutes, instead diving deep into the mystery of four interconnected families. Any series that begins with a quote from Albert Einstein is bound to be a headscratcher, but if you’re willing to buy into Dark’s puzzle, the rewards will be great.
The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion
Dark’s creator couple Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese appreciate the Stranger Things comparison, even if they’re quick to point out that their series was already in production before the Duffer Brothers’ series was released.
Here they talk about how they convinced Netflix to back Dark’s dark vision, and why language should be no barrier for their twisting German tale. The series is available to watch in full on Netflix now.
So, Dark and Stranger Things – what do you make of the comparisons?
Jantje Friese I think the comparison to Stranger Things basically comes from the coincidence that we and the Duffer Brothers read the same books when we were young. They’ve been influenced by Stephen King, we’ve been influenced by Stephen King. We like creepy small towns, mystery stories, things that turn a little darker.
Baran bo Odar We like the comparison with Stranger Things because we’re being compared to a good show! That’s always helpful. We were already in production when Stranger Things came out and we were like, ‘Oh, we have similar themes and nostalgia.’ Then we thought about it and realised we share the same age with the Duffer Brothers. They’re from the 80s, we’re from the 80s: that really defines your character, what you’re listening to, what art you like.
But we like a dark version of the 80s. I think they have more Steven Spielberg influences in their stories, while we’re more David Lynch in the end. We’re more creepy. Someone said it was a new genre, the ‘German angst’ – I like that.
You also have more characters to deal with than Stranger Things – were you ever worried about keeping track of all of them?
Odar You need a smart brain like Jantje to actually create that kind of a puzzle. That was the biggest challenge for us; we have 72 characters in this series. Not all of them have as much screen time as others, but they are all real characters. We felt as we were developing it that this might be our biggest failure or biggest success.
Friese Sometimes you have three actors playing one character. Dark has three different timelines, so you meet people when they are young, when they are adults, and shortly before death. Structuring it was a complex task, but we always knew we wanted to have four families so that we could have different relationships in different time zones. It was fun! It was like a puzzle.
Odar At the end we think this is the strength of the show. The world itself is very small, a small town in Germany. But having different timelines and different people playing the same character creates a big universe to explore.
How did you get involved with Netflix? There’s never been a German Netflix series before…
Friese They had been looking for a German show for quite a long time actually. They talked to a lot of producers and directors, and we weren’t initially in that crowd. Bo was working on his first Hollywood movie, but while over in LA he met up with Erik Barmack who’s Netflix chief of content for the international department. They watched Who Am I? which is a German movie we brought out a year before, and really liked it. They suggested making a series out of that.
However, Who Am I? is about computer hacking and we were already a little bit bored of that, and Mr Robot was already out.
We said we would pitch something different, not knowing what that would be at the time. But we looked through old material, and there was Dark, which was basically still just a crime show at that point. It was a show we’d written a couple years ago that had ended up in the drawer, but we really liked something about it. There was also another project we’d thought about developing, a time travel feature film, and so we pulled those both out and realised we could make a combination of them. That’s how it all started.
Being a German series, was there anything Netflix changed because they thought viewers wouldn’t get it?
Odar Occasionally. For example, some actor has a German line and it’s meant sarcastically, but they didn’t get that it was sarcasm because they can’t tell the tone difference. We were like, ‘Why don’t they get it?’ It was interesting for us, because we had to adjust when we realised the global audience wouldn’t get it.
Friese It’s so multi-layered though because there are some things that are there just to be understood in the German market. For example we have a reference to a chocolate bar that no one outside of Germany will understand. It’s a bar that was rebranded in the 80s, so it will look different in different timezones, but only Germans will know that.
Netflix were OK with certain things being very German, as long as the overall narrative works for everyone.
We haven’t had many German series do well here in the UK. Is that about to change?
Odar There’s a new generation of German filmmakers who are actually creating something very interesting right now. The reason why people in the UK haven’t seen much German stuff before is simply because it wasn’t very good! That’s why it didn’t sell to many countries. But now interesting stuff is happening, and everyone is feeling it.
Friese For the German market Netflix is a great opportunity to finally tell different stories. It’s a place for niche storytelling, but told to a global audience. I don’t feel we’re being Americanised by it.
Odar Netflix has 109 million subscribers worldwide. 50 million of them are Americans, but the rest live all over the world.
Narcos for example, that’s a South American show and yet it’s a global success. That’s the big difference to a Hollywood studio for example, which, based in LA, will make an American movie and then try to sell it abroad. Netflix’s starting point is the rest of the world. They have those global subscribers, they analyse them, they find out what they really want to watch.
Dark is released on Netflix on Friday 1st December