"Dark" Review (Netflix, 2020)
“Dark” (Netflix, 2020)
Written By: Emma Holt
“Life is a labyrinth, some wander around it until their death in search of a way out of it. But there is only one path, and it only leads deeper inside. Only when one reaches the center will they understand. Death is incomprehensible. But one can reconcile oneself with it. All that we’ve done, is ultimately forgotten.”
-Adam, “Dark” (Netflix, 2020)
What if we could travel back in time and prevent ourselves from the traumas of the human condition? What if we could have a conversation with our past and future selves? Do you believe in free will? Is our fascination with the concept of time travel simply a result of our insatiable desire to reconcile the pain, emotions, and experiences of being human?
In the words of Jonas of the Netlfix original series, Dark:
“What we know is a drop, what we don’t know: an ocean.”
Spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned!!
Emotionally and philosophically provoking to the core, Netflix’s original series, “Dark” (2019-2020) certainly challenges its viewers to question their preconceptions of space, time and everything in between. The series raises more questions than it answers, which is - in this reviewer’s opinion - one of it’s strongest features. Rather than spoon feeding you important plot points and character details, “Dark,” encourages it’s audience to reach their own conclusions on a diverse array of characters. Coming from someone who often puts themes, storylines, and characters together easily, I was consistently surprised throughout all three seasons as to where the storyline was going and what the characters were doing. I guess you could say they are pretty good at keeping you in the… “Dark”? (I’ll see myself out)...
The Philosophy & Science Behind Netflix’s, “Dark”
Netflix’s “Dark,” takes place in Winden, Germany in multiple different time periods (1953, 1986, 2019). And realities. Yep, you heard right. Multiple DIFFERENT realities. Through the art of selective storytelling, the creators of “Dark” pull inspiration from well-known physicist, Erwin Schrodinger and the theories of Quantum Mechanics.
The events that take place in the show follow the theory of Schrodinger’s Cat, which utilizes Quantum Mechanics to put forth the idea that a particle exists in all states possible, until that particle is measured and observed. When a particle exists in all states simultaneously, it is called superposition. Superposition collapse occurs when a particle is measured and it chooses one state to be in above all of the others. To show just how peculiar the behavior of particles is in Quantum Mechanics, and to further illustrate this concept, Schrodinger gave the example of putting a cat in a box. In his example, a cat is placed in a box with a radioactive particle, with a 50 percent chance of decaying and killing the cat. Using the superposition principle, until the box is opened, the cat was both dead and alive, in order for it to be in all the states it could possibly be in.
If you’ve ever watched Rick and Morty, then you are familiar with the concept of Many Worlds Theory. Many World Theory asserts the idea that when the box was uncovered, it caused the cat’s superposition to collapse. When the box was uncovered, the universe split into two - one where the cat lived, and one where it died. In any scenario where there is more than one option possible, the universe splits again, creating copies so that any possible outcome is true. Thus, Many World’s theory asserts that our planet exists in infinite different versions (i.e. a world where Hitler Won World War II, a world where Penicillin wasn’t invented, see Season 4: Episode 1: “Edge of Tomorty,” of Rick and Morty).
In “Dark”, Many World Theory combines with the idea of Quantum Entanglement. Quantum Entanglement repeats the Schrodinger’s Cat exercise, but with two cats in two boxes. Both cats are once again in a superposition state, prior to the box being opened (meaning that both cats are both dead and alive). Quantum Mechanics makes it so that, no matter what, there would always be one cat alive in one box, and one dead in the other. In this circumstance, the cat’s (or particles) states are “entangled.” Though there is no way to predict which cat will live and which will die prior to opening the box, there is always the guaranteed outcome that one cat will die and one will live. Particles cannot tell eachother how to obey the rules of entanglement, yet Quantum Entanglement has been observed in laboratories on the microscopic scale. The creators of “Dark” take this scientific theory of Quantum Entanglement a step further and imagine what it would be like for humans to be in this “entangled” state.
If you weren’t able to make sense of that last paragraph, it’s okay because I’m still struggling myself. The most important thing to understand about “Dark,” is that trying to understand the plot is a seemingly impossible task; in fact, I believe the creators are trying to make a point. If, instead of relentlessly trying to figure out how the details of this story add up, you simply focus more on the emotions of each character and understand what their greatest desires and motivations are, and you will soon begin to notice a common thread. One of my favorite quotes from the series comes from Adam (the older Jonas), as he says:
“Man is a strange creature. All of his actions are motivated by desire, his character forged by pain. As much as he may try to suppress that pain, to repress that desire, he cannot free himself from the eternal servitude to his feelings. For as long as the storm rages within him, he cannot find peace. Not in life, not in death. And so he will do what he must, day in, and day out. The pain is his vessel, desire his compass. It is all that man is capable of.”
This is such a powerful quote because I feel it is very true to the human condition. One of the greatest appeals of time travel is that it could potentially erase everything bad we’ve ever done, and change the outcome of all of our worst decisions.
Ulrich travels through time to try to find his lost brother and son, Hannah travels to try to erase the trauma in her life, Katerina travels to try and reclaim her husband and son, Noah carries out Adam’s orders in an attempt to find paradise, Claudia wants nothing more than to save her daughter Regina from certain death. The whole journey begins because Jonas wants to save his father from killing himself, but he later realizes that everything must happen as before so that he can have a chance at changing the bigger picture. Jonas’ sole desire becomes saving Martha from a brutal death at the hands of his older self, who wishes for nothing more than death and unending darkness. Adam wishes to stop the cycle of infinite pain and existence by causing the apocalypse to happen, while Eve does everything in her power to prevent the knot in time from being destroyed.
The greatest pain of all is felt by H.G. Tannhaus, the creator of time travel in “Dark”, and the creator of the infinite parallel knots in which Adam, and Eve (aka Jonas and Martha) are inescapably intertwined. An endless cycle of pain was created for everyone in Winden when Tannhaus created the first time machine in the bunker, splitting his world into three, as he attempted to save his son, daughter, and new born child from dying in a tragic car accident. Throughout the series, Jonas and Martha refer to themselves as, “a glitch in the Matrix,” and the finale of “Dark” proves they were right all along.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful and bittersweet moments in the series is when - after infinite years of living out their tragic and seemingly inescapable pre-determined endings - Martha and Jonas come to terms with the fact that their existence is truly, “a glitch in the matrix”; a glitch that shouldn’t, and cannot, exist. Claudia, the third main character and only character to travel across both realities, is the one who discovers that there is a third world beyond the two hells they’ve all been living in. The only way to save the ones they love is to surrender the ego, their story, their family, and everything they’ve ever known. Put simply, she is asking them to sacrifice their entire existence, to go back in time and stop H.G. Tannhaus’ from ever having the pain of losing his family, so that he would never make the time machine in the first place.
Being a person with an imaginative mind, I can’t help but think about this resolution a little longer. Jonas and Martha were never supposed to exist, and ultimately do cease to exist after fulfilling their goal to erase Tannhaus’ sorrow. But how would his sorrow ever be erased if Jonas and Martha never existed, to stop his family from crossing the bridge on that fateful night? They changed the most important detail in his life with one small interaction, and thus stopped him from creating a never ending cycle of pain for everyone.
In real life, we can’t go back and change the things that traumatize us. We are forged by pain and driven by desire. In the words of Doris Tiedermann, “the ways of the heart cannot be explained, it wants what it wants.” This statement also gets at the core of the human condition, though there is pain in the heart, there is happiness too. You never know how far a little love for your fellow human being can go. Perhaps it’s true that one small decision can change everything. But mistakes and experiences are what make us who we are. Though there are many other driving pursuits of life, to love and to be loved is perhaps one of the most difficult and mysterious concepts of all. As Jonas and Martha say to each other before they disappear into glitters of dust, “we are perfect for eachother, don’t ever believe anything different.” Even in our imperfections, love can shine a light in the darkest of places. Love explains the unexplainable, and drives us in directions we don’t always understand. Love is beyond science, and beyond explanation. Perhaps it is the answer to the mystery of quantum entanglement. Every human is driven by our hearts, or what some may call the soul, whether we admit it or not. Perhaps, “Dark” is suggesting that love is something that is beyond all comprehension, explanation, and a force beyond which we can ever measure.
Upon first glance, “Dark,” may seem like a German version of Netflix’s hugely successful, “Stranger Things,” however, upon further examination, the series is something entirely it’s own. The content, characters, and largely philosophical narrative are just a few things that set this series apart. Delving into some of the darkest corners of the human psyche, some scenes from this show are certainly not for everyone, and may be triggering. Like other successful horror films and psychological thrillers, “Dark” demonstrates that every traumatic scene comes with a powerful narrative aspect. The provocative series delivers cutting edge storytelling that will shatter any previous ideas of narrative structure. The storyline is refreshingly hard to predict and remains exciting throughout all three seasons. Across the board the acting is very powerful, and left me in tears at many different moments. It was certainly difficult for me to stomach more than one episode in a sitting due to the depth and nature of the content. Though it took me a while to get through, I certainly believe the series is worth savoring and allowing time for the ideas of each episode to fully sink in.
If you are searching for a series with breathtaking cinematography and a refreshingly unique narrative that is sure to welcome philosophers, scientists and artists alike, I highly recommend adding “Dark,” to your list.
“But in the end, every death is just a new beginning.”
-Eve, “Dark” (Netflix, 2020)
Sources & For More information on Quantum Mechanics, Schrodinger’s Cat Theory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkVpMAbNOAo
Quantum Entanglement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1GCnycbMeA
I’ll be honest and say that I’m still not entirely sure what role that Mads Nielson and Erik Obendorf played in the creation of time travel, or why the kids were disappearing and turning up dead. Those factors seemed to be significant emotional points throughout the series, yet they never outright explain the specific role they played. It also wasn’t clear to me how Boris Niewald, better known as Alexander Kohler, ended up traveling from the Tannhaus’ original world to the alternate reality in which Adam and Eva’s stories take place. Based on his confession to Bartoz later in the series, and his generally sketchy demeanor, its clear he was running from a crime and lying about his true identity. One thing is for certain, Boris Niewald (as Alekander Tidermann) is crucial to the plot in regards that his path always leads him to open the barrels at the nuclear power plant, causing the apocalypse to happen; causing the infinite “knot” in space time to manifest, leading the town of Winden’s painful history to repeat itself infinitely. I felt these plot points were left unsolved to a degree and would be interested to hear what other people's thoughts were or if I missed something. Feel free to comment and offer up your thoughts.