He is of this cursed ghost town, and will remain of it, part of all these things that are so much greater than he. Look, I say to you. Look with him as he closes his eyes, as he dies, knowing that in the sleep of death no more dreams will come.
– Rory Maclean, Berlin
Not only Berlin, of course, but Winden. The small town tucked away in the forest is the stage for Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar’s Dark: a tale of trauma, mystery, and human desires that fight against rules of the universe they hadn’t even considered possible. To the casual eye, Dark could be seen as just the latest escapade of the cultural zeitgeist for time travel and ’80’s nostalgia—see Avengers: Endgame, Stranger Things, IT, and The Endless. This, I think, does Dark a disservice. What the show brings to the table that makes it so distinct and substantial is a strong link to and representation of two emotional concepts central to the German psyche, which mark the show within a specific national cultural tradition: angst and Weltschmerz.
Angst became embedded in the English imagination with the publication of works by Søren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud. Kierkegaard identified it as a type of anxiety experienced in the face of nothingness itself, whereas Freud defined it as anxiety in more general terms. According to Arika Okrent, “while anxiety and angst are interchangeable, anxiety foregrounds a feeling of suffering (also present in angst), while angst foregrounds dissatisfaction, a complaint about the way the world is.”
On the other side of the melancholic coin, Weltschmerz translates quite literally as either “world-pain” or “world-weariness.” To Joachim Whaley, it is “pain suffered simultaneously both in the world and at the state of the world, with the sense the two are linked.” It is the dreamer’s curse: the painful sadness felt in the gap between what we believe and what we receive, between what the world should be and what it is. A shattering of a deeply held illusion or idea about the world could trigger such a response, as we shall see.
How does Dark reflect this, and how does Dark fit into a larger German cultural tradition of angst and Weltschmerz in storytelling? Come with me, but be warned; follow too deep into the Winden woods and you might find yourself in the grip of Weltschmerz, too…
Although the concepts of angst and Weltschmerz stretch far back in Germany’s cultural history, Jantje Friese locates these feelings to a very specific period of time:
We feel delving into those dark themes has a lot to do with who we are and what happened in the first years of the last century, when basically there were two world wars and lots of people were killed in the name of Germans…It’s something that we, as the younger generation, talked about extensively in school and always with the question, how could this happen? How can people actually do such dark and creepy things? I think those themes, the darkness in human behaviour itself, is something that is very German.
Dark does not refer directly to the wars, so to understand how the show reflects these we have to look back German post-war history first. Not only was Germany hit seriously by the Great Depression post-World War I, in the immediate aftermath of World War II the continuation of severe food rationing led to people traveling many miles in ruined train carts to the country to barter with their household items for a week’s worth of potatoes. Not only did people have to come to terms with the violence and the hysteria of the country during the Nazi regime, leading to severe self-examinations, but they had to do so in a state of extreme hunger, not knowing if they could obtain enough food to keep going another week. Former national prosperity seemed like a dream. The Weltschmerz loomed large above all.
In reality, the “German Economic Miracle,” which not only brought stability but marvelous prosperity to the nation, was arrived at by the economic reforms of Ludwig Erhard, which allowed people more for their money and encouraged spending to boost the economy. Dark presents a slightly different scenario for the prosperity of Winden: the building in 1953 of the nuclear power plant by Bernd Doppler, to be owned in the future by both Claudia and Aleksander Tiedemann. Progress had arrived.
It becomes clear that not everyone believes progress wears the face of a nuclear family. When the bodies of two dead children are found at the site of the plant, Bernd Doppler states to the investigating officer Egon Tiedemann: “You should be asking who might have a problem with the power plant being built…I just spoke to the city council about the building permit. And just like that, two dead children’s corpses appear on the construction site one day earlier? If this power plant gets built, it will be nothing short of a revolution. Not only will it change Winden, nuclear energy will bring growth and wealth to the entire nation. But it means change. The old must give way to the new. Not everyone likes that.” When pressed on who is responsible for the killings, Doppler points to the coal plant operators.
Noah is referring to his guinea pigs in time travel when he says “there must be sacrifices,” but I believe the sentiment is one Herr Doppler would be only too happy to apply to his idea of progress. You can sacrifice yourself, or you can be sacrificed—without your permission. In 1956, statistics show that the number of working miners was over 600,000. If local energy was to be substantially replaced by nuclear power, there would not be as many available jobs in nuclear power for miners to move to, nor transferrable skills from one industry to the other; out of the dream of future prosperity would come a harsh reality of mass redundancy. Here is the sadness at facing the way of the world: that people and their livelihoods are expendable in the face of progress and that this is not just something that happens to other people—it could happen to you, right here, right now. Maybe you are expendable. How could you feel anything but Weltschmerz in a situation like that?
The mass redundancies do not seem to have come to pass, either in Winden or reality, but the tension the nuclear power plant has injected into Winden not only echoes but amplifies through the years. After Mikkel goes missing in the cave, Ulrich discovers a locked door that would give access to the nuclear plant, but Aleksander Tiedemann refuses to allow a search; he claims that, if a child had found a way into the plant, it would have been noticed. A warrant to search the plant is also denied. Why would someone block an attempt to find a child, no matter how slim the chance of success?
Ulrich, in his panic and his heartbreak, realizes that something is being hidden but his Weltschmerz is narrowing his vision. He can’t see that anything other than Mikkel could be responsible for Aleksander’s defensiveness—namely, the mass of nuclear waste in barrels that are hidden in the cave. Instead of reason, Ulrich can only see Mikkel. This very personal familial loss only increases the pain involved in looking for the missing child. In Ulrich’s mind, Aleksander’s refusal to help in the search for a missing child is a perversion of human decency and the way the world should be. This causes the power plant to be demonized to monolithic proportions in Ulrich’s mind. The angst confuses. He is more than dissatisfied with the way he perceives that the world is; he is consumed by it. Of course, the nuclear plant is responsible for Mikkel’s disappearance in a roundabout way; the nuclear waste provides the energy for the cave to function as a portal in time. But Ulrich doesn’t know this yet. He is running at this point on pure angst and Weltschmerz.
To be fair, it wouldn’t take much for a member of the community in 2019 to leap to conclusions regarding the power plant; it is already a bogeyman, the wicked witch of the village. 33 years earlier the Chernobyl disaster created widespread panic in Europe as the release of radioactive materials in the explosion led to a very real fear that the very air that people breathed would contaminate them. Baram bo Odar recalls his childhood in a small town in Germany during this time:
It’s a very German, or European, feeling that Americans don’t get because they never had fallout like that…My mom told me, “You can’t play outside anymore, especially if it’s raining, it will kill you,” or, “You can’t buy sweets in that store because it’s radioactive.”
In Winden in 1986, the young Hannah tells her then-older son Jonas, “You shouldn’t stay out in the rain so long…because it’s acid. Chernobyl. People say it’s not in the rain anymore, but I don’t believe it.”
Childhood is supposed to be idyllic, in a rural setting even more so. The lush fields and secretive caves and forests should be a paradise for children to explore and play in, to grow up around and be inspired by. The idea of childhood and the freedom to play is so ingrained that it’s taken for granted as a social fact (save for the odd disciplinarian parent or two). Imagine being told as a child that you couldn’t play outside and get a little sunshine, or that you couldn’t indulge in such a simple treat as going to the shop and picking out some sweets for yourself. Imagine that the very things that we take for granted, natural things like the rain and the air, could kill you without your even seeing the killer. Being denied such simple pleasures and basic rights, it’s no surprise that the Winden children of ’86 grew up to be such bitter adults, so consumed with angst and Weltschmerz.
Ulrich is not loyal to Katharina. Their sex life is nowhere near as regular or exciting as it was during their courtship. So Ulrich sleeps with Hannah, not out of any real affection for Hannah, but a desire to recapture some of the intimacy and passion of his youth. Hannah, on the other side, has been almost clinically obsessed with Ulrich since they were kids growing up together. She is prepared to do anything she can to get her man. Yet neither one will really get what they want from the affair.
In 1986, Ulrich is arrested on a false accusation of raping Katharina. For years the couple thought the culprit was Regina, as revenge for a heartless prank committed when they tied her up in the forest (a prank that they were never truly sorry for). But no, Regina kept her pain to herself. Ulrich discovers the truth in 2019; it had been Hannah all along. She had seen Ulrich and Katharina in the school gym making love and it ruptured the obsessive’s vision. She could see nothing but her and Ulrich, even though there never was a “her and Ulrich.” Her Weltschmerz formed a fist and she lashed out with an accusation. The people we know, Winden tells us, are not the people we believe them to be. We can never truly know another person.
Look at Aleksander Tiedemann, for example. In the assumption of a new identity, he reminds us of the Nazis in the immediate post-war period who held delicate, important positions—such as teachers—who had to change their identities and play down or hide their political allegiances to be able to gain or keep their positions. I am not suggesting Aleksander is a Nazi, of course, but the parallel bears thinking about: how do we know and how can we trust that a person is who they say are?
I look back to 1953, to the nuclear power plant. It was supposed to be a shiny new symbol of progress and prosperity for Winden. But out of a mistrust of the new and a fear for a community’s livelihood, there arose a bitterness in the town’s children, and from there distrust, paranoia, fear, angst, and Weltschmerz—all that pain, all that trauma, just from the introduction of a power plant into town. The old must give way to the new, but the oldest feelings are constant. Some things never change, but as we know, in time, they will loop…
Next time I will be looking in more detail at how Dark explores the idea of the gap between how we perceive people and the reality, and how this gap, when escalated by the confusion of time travel, leads to greater levels of angst and Weltschmerz.
I’ll see you next time, in the Winden woods…