[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of “Dark.”]
When Jantje Friese and her partner Baran bo Odar created their German-language science fiction series “Dark” for Netflix, they had no idea that it would become an international hit.
“When we started with the show, obviously we weren’t sure whether we were going to get any audience because it’s just such an unusual narrative,” said Friese. “We weren’t 100 percent convinced that we would get people [away] from the second screen and actually take the time and investment to watch what’s going on. And also why would they like weird German-language things? In the development process we never thought of it as [just] a German show. We always approached it as a global show, but we never, never, never expected that kind of success.”
In the series, a boy goes missing in the small German town of Winden, and as the series unspools, viewers learn that secrets, time travel, and a metaphysical battle between good and evil are behind that mystery.
According to Variety, about 90 percent of “Dark’s” audience comes from outside of Germany, and after the release of Season 1 in December 2017, Parrot Analytics noted that the show actually increased its viewership in its second week, mimicking the word-of-mouth viewership success of “Stranger Things” and “Maniac.”
“It’s something you hope for, but it actually hit us really hard,” said Friese. “Two weeks after the release of Season 1, I was on Twitter honestly 24 hours a day. I was so miserable because … somehow you’re really more prepared for failure then success I guess. It was a very, very odd time, but also great to know the fans just embraced what you’ve done so much. It’s heart-wrenching and really put a lot of press pressure on Season 2. For two or four weeks I was completely lost to the world.”
Netflix has yet to address the viewership for Season 2 since it was only released recently on June 21, but the show is already in production for its third and final season, which will air sometime in 2020.
“Bo and I met in film school and since Day One, we were convinced that it was possible to tell local stories coming out of Germany that could hit an audience anywhere,” Friese said. “Narratives or stories are always about human behavior and human connection. And even though the culture is different all around the world, there are certain things that are everywhere. The same people laugh, cry, they get born, they die – just fundamental human stuff. So with every project we did, we, we always had that in mind that one day we want to reach a global audience.”
After the 2014 film “Who Am I – No System Is Safe,” a techno thriller that’s been compared to “Fight Club” and “Mr. Robot,” earned critical acclaim and three German movie awards, Netflix approached the duo to adapt the film into a series. Instead, they came up with “Dark.”
“When Netflix was looking for the first German show, there were two things happening. One was we didn’t want to do it and we were kind of pressured into it. We had old material that was actually a different story a couple of years back,” she said.
“The other thing was really, ‘What is German?’ What can we put out in the world apart from the Second World War – which I still think is also in Dark, even though we’re not in the timeline. I personally feel that a lot of very great philosophers came out of from German history. So I felt that’s something to give.”
And thus, fans of this science fiction series can be found discussing Nietzsche and other philosophers, trying to unlock the show’s themes of free will and fate, alongside the physics of time travel. It’s all heady stuff, but one that adds an extra layer to the show’s mysteries.
“It’s really mind-opening and I personally still read stuff and I’m really blown away. There are so many ideas and concepts out in the world,” said Friese. “We’re just consumed 24 hours a day and never take the time to sit down and just think, oh, I am. So, yeah, that was my personal gift that I wanted to give, but obviously still trying to be entertaining while giving it.”
One doesn’t need to actually understand how or why something happens on “Dark” – although that’s a bonus – but just learning the end result of some of these time travel hijinks is entertainment in itself.
In Season 1, one of the biggest revelations once time travel is introduced is that teenager Jonas (Louis Hofmann) realizes that the young boy Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz) who disappears from Winden in 2019, has actually gone back in time to 1986 where he then met and eventually married Jonas’ mother. In the present, he’s now Jonas’ father, who coexists in the same time period with young Mikkel.
Friese said, “That was the centerpiece of it all. Our idea was always to do Greek tragedy below it even though it’s a sci-fi show, a mystery show, in its core, it’s really about human relationships and how fucked up they can be.”
The ultimate example of that is Season 2’s epic revelation that police chief Charlotte’s (Karoline Eichhorn) mother is actually her daughter Elisabeth (Carlotta von Falkenhayn) through more time travel shenanigans.
“That [story] was already during development for Season 1. I can’t tell you exactly at what point; it wasn’t in the first rough concept, but I think it was during the writers room on the first draft in Season 1,” said Friese.
This time travel paradox of creating a closed causal loop, where the origins of something cannot be determined such as the chicken and the egg, is introduced in Season 2 to set the groundwork for such mind-blowing revelations.
“When you work with time travel, you basically have to decide on one concept. You can follow the ‘Back to the Future’ kind of way where you can actually change stuff in the past that will affect the future – which with my very personal more deterministic view of the world is nonsense,” said Friese.
“That’s where we basically put the groundwork, going for deterministic time travel rules. We’re hinting at that in the first season all the time that it’s a circle. Everything happens constantly in loops. I just felt that was such a multilayered story. I put a lot of thought into it: What kind of information and when do you explain certain rules? How much room do you give for people trying to figure it out and when do you push them into the right direction? What kind of trigger words do you use? What kind of symbols do you use? There are a lot of symbols throughout, a lot of referencing systems in terms of religion, mythology.”
Because “Dark” travels back and forth in time, dropping in on the same Winden residents at different ages in 33-year cycles, casting children, adults, and older versions of those characters is essential to sell the outlandish storytelling. Fortunately the similarities between some of the older and younger actors are so uncanny that often other clues aren’t necessary, and occasionally, some viewers are convinced that one actor has just been aged up using makeup and prosthetics – such as in the case of Adult Ulrich (Oliver Masucci) and Elderly Ulrich (Winfried Glatzeder).
“Honestly, the most difficult people to find were women [older than middle age]. When women turn 40, their career dies down unfortunately. And the older they get, it gets worse,” said Friese. “We thought that was would be easier. That was actually very difficult to have a big enough pool of women to choose from, which I thought was quite sad.”
One of the most challenging roles to cast was the nurse Ines who actually adopts Mikkel when he travels back to 1986.
“We have three age groups, and once you find one, then everything needs to relate to that person. When you see them in life and flesh, they don’t look that much alike. So it’s really that in going through the makeup process and trying to find out what you do with the hair and face. Old Ines (Angela Winkler) in actual life has a mole, so you put that on younger Ines when you tried to make them match.”
Friese credits casting director Simone Bär for the series’ uncanny casting coups.
“The casting director did a fantastic job. I still think that young Katharina is related to Old Katharina now because they just look the same. That’s crazy because that like, usually you have to look for for nose [physiology] because that’s the most [obvious] pointing thing.”
“Dark” couldn’t cast people who were too distinct though, in the interests of the mystery. That’s why there’s a viewer learning curve at the beginning, trying to tell one German person apart from another.
“In terms of diversity, that’s actually really one big thing that when you have people crossbreeding through different timelines you really can’t just throw in something because then otherwise you would kind of know who’s is whose child,” said Friese. “Even if the hair color is lighter or if they have freckles, then that kind of a hint. I makes it very difficult.”
Season 2 ended with Jonas being whisked away to another world, possibly another dimension by a version of his now-dead girlfriend Martha (Lisa Vicari). Wrapping up the “Dark” story next season hasn’t been an easy process, even though filming is already underway.
“There are actually two things. The ending, knowing where you’re going is one thing, but then finding the ways to get there is really a whole different challenge,” said Friese. “The basic idea of Season 3 was something that we already had when we started. There are also a lot of things in Season 1 hinting to Season 3. Also, we actually thought about putting some of the stuff that’s now in Season 3 into Season 2, but then decided to move it backwards. So basically now everything that’s left just falls into Season 3.”
Friese wouldn’t drop any spoilers – not even saying how Season 3 will differ from the first two cycles – but gave a few clues as to the faces viewers can expect.
“We’re going to see a bit more about grown Ulrich,” she said. “Also the same as we did in Season 2 where we put a little bit focus on different characters like Claudia and Egon, we’re going to do the same in Season 3 and call some people up that had smaller parts. And yes, Martha and Jonas, that’s the big centerpiece of it all.”
Friese also warned viewers from making assumptions about certain characters, such as Jonas’ mother Hannah (Maja Schöne), who has done rather unforgivable, selfish, and malicious acts throughout every timeline. She was last seen stealing a time machine, traveling to the past to taunt her old lover, and then taking off on her own. Never mind that in her own time, everyone – including her son – was facing a certain apocalypse.
“I love her!” said Friese. “As with every character in ‘Dark,’ when you’re sure you know who the villain is or who’s doing the bad thing, you should be open for what made them that way because. No one is just evil because they want to be; everyone is reacting to their own hurts and wounds. The past shapes you and everything that happens.”
One frustrating mystery that still hasn’t been answered over the course of the first two seasons is what happened to Torben Wöller’s eye. In the first season, he had it bandaged up, and in Season 2, he has an blackened eyepatch fitted into one lens of his glasses. He almost reveals what happens before he’s interrupted. Wöller’s eye isn’t just a mystery, but one of the running jokes that makes “Dark” so rich.
Friese knows the reason for his injury and eye patch, but wouldn’t reveal what happened. She also doesn’t want viewers to expect to learn everything when the show ends.
“We always think we have to answer everything. So every riddle we put in there, we feel we have to solve it,” she said. “But we’re not going to solve every riddle because sometimes it’s funnier [that way]. I’m still not sure about the percentage, but it’s probably 10 percent [of the mysteries] we are not goiong to answer just for the fun of it, but they will be smaller. So, but I’m not going to tell you whether we’re going to or not.”
“Dark” Season 1 and 2 are currently streaming on Netflix.