One of the most fascinating elements of “Charité,” the new six-part German miniseries now available on Netflix, is the operation theater. As a medical drama set in the late 19th century, this combination lecture hall and surgical venue is as compelling a concept as it is unsanitary. To see a procedure like a tracheotomy or an appendectomy, both in their nascent development stages, presented in such a matter-of-fact way is jarring by design. To see progress and hubris in tandem is one of the main reasons why medical dramas (especially ones set in a distant time) continue to be a regular TV staple.
Whenever “Charité” returns to the exhibition-style setting of that instructional surgery hall, it’s hard not to think of the similar scenes in “The Knick,” a show that by virtue of its styling and being set a decade later took a more modern approach to this subgenre. With its troubled doctors, slippery romantic entanglements, and bureaucratic concerns, “Charité” isn’t quite a replacement for fans still grieving the end of Steven Soderbergh’s Cinemax show. A handful of tumultuous outbursts and 360° views of various rooms within the title hospital clinic aren’t trying to capture the same frantic energy that “The Knick” did. But given the histories of the individuals that make up a significant portion of this limited series, it shows that “Charité” never gets quite as revolutionary as its main characters were.
“Charité” may have some of the similar story beats as other turn-of-the-century fare, but as the series progresses this actually leans closer to a “Downton Abbey”-style story. With discussions of social position, forbidden love, and roles within an established hierarchy, what starts out as a more scientific approach slides into something less rigorous. Still, the divide between the scholarly physicians and the hard-working nursing staff becomes a kind of “upstairs, downstairs” story. When new assistant nurse Ida Lenze (Alicia von Rittberg) makes known her intentions to try to advance beyond her rank, she’s laughed out of the room on at least one occasion.
Those that Ida has to contend with range from Dr. Robert Koch (Justus von Dohnányi), the movie star bacteriologist of the day, to would-be surgeon in training Georg Tischendorf (Maximilian Meyer-Bretschneider). In a story rife with frustrated ambition, the poster boy is Emil Behring (Matthias Koeberlin), whose efforts to prove his diphtheria cure are almost as strong as his worsening opium addiction.
As strong as the efforts of these individuals are — Koch, Behring, and other figures like Paul Ehrlich and Rudolf Virchow were actual figures involved in the history of the still-operating Charité clinic — love still seems to be a much more powerful dose. Whether it’s seeking the approval of a father, a father figure, or a young lover, most of the scientific elements of “Charité” is couched as a pawn in the greater game of affection.
So even at six hours, “Charité” feels constricted by a sense of time. With so many captivating angles to this life at this institution, the romantic moments often crowd out the more interesting subplots that only get a tangential amount of attention. If aspiring actress Hedwig Freiberg really is the superfan of scientific journals, it’s put forth mainly as a way to bring about one doctor’s shaky fall from grace. If one of the nurses really wants to pursue a career in medicine, it’s used as a wedge in the middle of a love triangle.
In broader strokes, “Charité” lands on some ideas that elevate this above a simple period piece. For the specific place that investigate scientists held in the public fascination of the day, the constant parade of public acclaim mixed with private insecurity makes for some compelling psychological dilemmas. Watching how each of these men deal with their respective bouts of imposter syndrome is some of the series’ most insightful bits of character work. The great men in this story each have succumb to their own weaknesses.
Unfortunately, “Charité” is still locked with in the familiar rhythms of period-specific melodrama, so that even when world-changing scientific discoveries are in the balance, the show frames them as volleys in a petty ego war that quickly becomes a simple back-and-forth. These men of upright standing, throughout the hospital/medical chain of command fight over attention, funding, and stature. (And yes, women, too.)
After a first episode it seems to take pleasure in digging into the particulars behind these discoveries (including a handful of operation sequences that spare no expense on viscera), all that falls away over time as the romance takes center stage. The early problems at the show’s outset feel like they could be transposed onto any setting, be it a hospital, a financial office, a law firm, or any other place that may fall under occasional public scrutiny.
What “Charité” really benefits from is capturing the sensation of frustration that comes with discovery. In diagnosis, prognosis, or cure, these people are searching for something that they know exists but in many cases can’t prove is actually there. There are few premises with more inherent drama than a group of people trying to verbalize ideas and solutions they literally don’t have words for. Whether it’s the technique for certain procedures or the simple terms for depression, seeing them on the verge of these breakthroughs is where the show does the storytelling work that makes it worth investing in.
Though the series takes on a few too many characters to do them all justice, it’s finds a fasting later to this in Martha (Ramona Kunze-Libnow), a deaconess at Charité. Her continuous insistence that illnesses should be cured by God and not man provides a fascinating foil to all of the investigative work the physicians are doing elsewhere. Just as the students at “Charité” are wrestling with methodology and the purpose of their profession, so are the nurses behind the scenes. That also expresses itself in a later-season arc when the nurses discuss the formation of a union. Seeing that amount of agency in a story where women are very explicitly regarded as something less than men by its male characters, it’s enough to make you wish the show was much more about the women of “Charité.”
As most of the doctors in this institution succumb to the usual antihero trappings – addiction, adultery, creeping white supremacist tendencies – it’s the women who emerge as the heroes of the story. It’s even more disappointing when the show literally ends at the point when its main character is on the verge of an even more extraordinary chapter, free from the real-life and in-story limitations she faced over these six episodes. It’s not that “Charité” tells an uninteresting story, it’s that the better one always seems to be right around the corner.
“Charité” is available to stream on Netflix.