Ironically, of all the things spreading across Germany right now, from a resurgent COVID-19 to protests and counter-protests, a Netflix drama tops the list. It’s called Dark (2017-20), starring Louis Hoffman, Karoline Eichhorn, and an actor named Oliver Masucci who played Adolf Hitler in an offbeat film in 2015. Now in its final season, Dark (das Dunkel) centers around four families in the fictional town of Winden.
In addition to dealing with adultery, teenage rebellion, and drug use, these families suffer the horror of child abduction. At one point in the first season, three children disappear and another’s body is found outside the caves that lie beneath Winden’s nuclear power plant. By the second season, six people have disappeared, including Ulrich Nielsen, who is played by Masucci.
However, there’s more going on in Dark than family drama and suspense, for a wormhole exists in the caves through which the characters travel back and forth in time either by passing through a maze of small, iron doors with the phrase Sic Mundus Creatus Est (Thus the world was created), or by operating a mechanical device in a wooden box built by a watchmaker.
Even more sinister, however, a cabal of Masonic-like occultists manipulates the wormhole in an attempt to gain eternal life and refashion existence in their own image. In doing so, the leader of the group, “Adam,” becomes disfigured, which is the reason he kidnaps children and conducts experiments on them with the result that their bodies turn up with charred faces and burst eardrums.
Perhaps the funniest scene in all of this Dunkelheit takes place in 1953 when the coroner shows the police chief the “Made in China” labels on the clothing of two dead children, who arrived there from our present day. They wonder whether the children are Chinese, even the redhead.
All of this is to confess that I, too, have been taken by the series. I will rewatch the first two seasons to make sure I understood it the first time around, auf deutsch, of course, just to make it harder on myself. Then I’ll move on to season three, which Netflix released yesterday.
This will give me time to consider a few things.
First, time travel. The series creators, Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, have done a nice job basing the plausibility of time travel on the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, which connects disparate points in space and time through a wormhole. In reality, the hole would be so small that not even the COVID-19 virus would be able to pass through, let alone a worm, but that’s beside the point. The real issue, as with most time travel fiction, has to do with free will.
In Dark, the characters appear to be bound by their fate and, as if in a Greek tragedy, spend most of their time trying to accept that fate. If fate is disturbed for some reason (e.g., the appearance of a future version of the self), it must be set right again or human life will be altered.
But I wonder about that future version of the self, which occurs to Louis Hoffman’s character. His future self shows up to stop him from approaching his future father, who has gone back to 1986. Why? To preserve destiny. But when a future self visits a present or past self, where does the “I” reside? Where, to put it in theological terms, is the soul?
Secondly, religion or the occult nature of the show. Adam says at one point that God doesn’t exist. There is only time. Once the cabal masters time, they will become the most powerful force in the universe. Sic Mundus Creatus Est comes from the Emerald Tablet, which concerns the manipulation of matter and energy to achieve immortality.
None of this is Christian, of course. Even so, Adam’s Luciferian lieutenant, Noah, appears as a Lutheran minister in clerical collar to drive home the point that the show is post-Christian. But then a St. Christopher medal appears in various episodes and one of the characters, Jana Nielsen, actually prays.
Theologically, Christianity crystalizes past, present, and future into one moment such that the Incarnation and Resurrection are two dimensions of the same saving act. You see this in liturgical celebrations, which, unfortunately, have now been reduced to live streaming. Dark stumbles toward this understanding but by turning the God-human relationship upside down.
Finally, just below the plot lie the themes of Armageddon, nuclear disaster, corruption, the loss of spirituality in modern life, and the fragility of family. Religion used to provide solace, even answers, to these threats to humanity. Now, it’s up to characters like Louis Hofmann’s, both his present and future selves, to solve them for us.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are in some deep, deep Dunkel.