‘Dark’ is a German ‘Stranger Things’ About Capitalism’s False Promise to Women in Power

This Netflix series about child murder and time travel has something far more topical in mind

Two months after its release, Netflix’s German-language series Dark is still something of a mysterious black box. Online communities and tinfoil-hat thinkpieces have tried to account for its obscure cultural references and to theorize its future episodes, but no one is quite sure what it all means. That’s the danger of a show like Dark, as Matt Brennan pointed out in Paste magazine, one so encrusted with codes that it ends up essentially seeming meaningless. But there’s another way to think of the show, I would argue, where its dizzying absurdity is evidence of its political, if not artistic, success. For one thing, Dark’s inscrutability demonstrates how easily cultural conversations can favor meaning-making over material action. As a case in point, in all the talk about Dark, no one has bothered to mention the show’s compelling approach to women.

I don’t think anyone, myself included, was looking for a subversive feminist angle when Dark debuted in early December. Pitched as a “German Stranger Things,” the series follows a similar formula: there is a suspicious death, an outcast youth, a missing child, and an atmosphere of conspiratorial paranoia over the town of Winden, Germany, where the show takes place. Like the Hawkins, Indiana setting of Stranger Things, Winden is beholden to an imperially standoffish government operation — here a nuclear plant, rather than a covert military research lab. But unlike Hawkins — with its desperate mother, hardboiled male sheriff, and Reaganite patriarchy — Winden’s civic and commercial figures are nearly all women, and its unraveling hysterics are all men.

Winden’s civic and commercial figures are nearly all women, and its unraveling hysterics are all men.

There’s Katharina Nielsen (Jördis Triebel), the principal of the town’s high school; Charlotte Doppler (Karoline Eichhorn), the just-the-facts chief of police; Regina Tiedemann (Deborah Kaufmann) who owns and operates the elegant Waldhotel, and is also the “heir,” through her missing mother, Claudia Tiedemann (Lisa Kreuzer), to the highest management position at Winden’s nuclear plant. Opposite them is the motherless Hannah Kahnwald (Maja Schöne): the youngest, poorest, and shrewdest of the group, as well as a ruthless homewrecker supposedly mourning her dead husband. Though not the protagonists of the series, these and other women carry much of the show’s emotional weight, while also performing much of its symbolic work.

At no point in the show does it seem like this is a story about these women. But perhaps that’s the advantage of Dark’s baroque symbolism, and of the theories it’s inspired. It manages to mime the way that women’s disproportionate suffering under capitalism is muffled, crowded out, and taken for granted, as a side effect of a system which ultimately only works for those in power. Through the stories of Winden’s women, Dark slowly builds its bitter argument like a German sentence, with its verb falling at the end. For anyone who isn’t a straight white man, upward mobility isn’t enough to dismantle inequality, when the actual social infrastructures we live with — our economies, our discourses, the very concept of a nuclear family — are compromised, aimed to protect and enshrine the already powerful.

Dark begins in 2019, and time is almost up for Winden, which is at the end of a 66-year era of state-subsidized prosperity: its nuclear plant, the holdout of a nationwide phase-out, is set to close in 2020. Getting to a nuclear-free future, however, may not be possible for this small West German town. A highly classified accident at the nuclear plant thirty-three years before — in 1986, around the time of the Chernobyl disaster — has trapped Winden in a time loop, with 2019 as the latest possible date. The result of a twist in space-time, the loop has produced a portal inside Winden’s ancient cave system, where one can slip backward or forward — but only thirty-three years in the past, or thirty-three years into the future, with 1986 standing in the middle. Apparently in sync with the 33-year “solar-lunar cycle,” Winden’s loop is more a cycle of carnage than it is of cosmic renewal.

The mutilated bodies of children appear in the woods every 33 years: their eyes burned away, eardrums destroyed, bodies dressed in clothing from decades long past — and each of them decorated with a red-string necklace. In the first few episodes of the series it happens again, with some of the town’s women among the few to recognize the eerie symmetry between 2019 and 1986. Soon, Katharina’s own son, Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz), disappears into Winden’s wormhole, to 1986, sending her unfaithful husband Ulrich (Oliver Masucci) into a slow and excruciating downward spiral. As the three time periods intersect, chaos descends on the Windens past and present, as erstwhile protagonist (and poorly realized character) Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hofmann), Hannah’s son, tries to set the flow of time straight again. Enigmatic figures pop up, dressed as Catholic priests, or bag ladies, or black-hooded vagabonds, raising so many questions that the peculiar situation of Winden’s women may not be the audience’s priority. Though perhaps it should be.

The intriguing thing about Dark’s time-jumping anomaly is not the many philosophical paradoxes it evokes. What’s intriguing rather is the opportunity it offers to see the changing economic power of women over the decades, across the lifespan of late capitalism. From past through to present, each generation of women works harder — emotionally, as well as economically — for the sake of men who seem to do less, and absent themselves more. For all their hard-won equality after sixty years, in the near future of Dark women’s economic parity with men has apparently not brought any reduction in their share of emotional labor.

In the near future of Dark women’s economic parity with men has apparently not brought any reduction in their share of emotional labor.

In the 2019 storyline, after a high school student disappears, Katharina must raise her family, manage a crisis of confidence among the parents as the school’s principal, and protect her children from possible abduction. Her husband, Ulrich, does nothing to make these multiple burdens any lighter. On the first day of school, in a representative scene of a chaotic family breakfast, Katharina deftly manages her unruly children while making breakfast, forced to set aside the other stresses of her day. Ulrich — a detective assigned to the missing persons case — arrives late. He’s spent the morning sleeping with Hannah, blaming an abnormally busy line at the bakery for his lateness, and presenting Katharina with fresh bread.

Charlotte, Ulrich’s boss, has her own unhappiness at home, though it’s unclear whether this stems more from the emotional instability of her unfaithful husband, or from her intense commitment to a police force thrown into indefinite overdrive. Either way, she overcorrects at home, adopting a ruthlessly procedural approach in raising her two daughters, one of whom is deaf. Her unyielding industriousness and imperious attention to detail may also point to an unresolved imposter complex at work — not caused by her exceptional competency, but simply by the fact that she’s a woman. Even in 2019, when she outranks all the male officers, she never presents an opinion without hard data, and entertains no vacuous “hunches” or “feelings” from her hardboiled (mostly male) detectives.

Indeed, Charlotte and all the other women in the series display a surgically precise attention to detail, even in non-professional situations that don’t necessarily call for it. While their mastery is admirable it is also a defense mechanism, in a world which demands that women couch their opinions in the wisdom of other people before they can dispense it — a standard that’s rarely applied to men. Yet even when a woman has made the numbers work — when she has won every conceivable contest of wit and skill — on reaching the finish line she may find that the rules have changed beneath her feet. The lesson of Dark is clear. In the workplace, in the bedroom, in the systems of economy and social discourse, it has never been about knowing and playing by the rules. It has only ever been about those who hold the authority to make and to break them.

One of Dark’s women discovers this the hard way, in perhaps the most emblematic storyline of the entire series. During a sequence set in 1986 we see Claudia Tiedemann traveling to work while preparing a speech — a little too made-up even by the loose standards of the eighties, as if she were newly indulging a femininity that’s been repressed during her corporate climb. But now she has reached the top, and will soon begin her tenure as Winden nuclear plant’s first female executive. In the backseat sits her daughter, Regina, having Walkman-ed herself into silence as Claudia berates her through the rearview mirror. Understandably, she resents her daughter’s indifference to the occasion, and all that it means.

Arriving at the plant she hastily reviews a dossier of previous years’ data, arming herself with the clearest numbers before she assumes her new role. But all of it is off, diverging wildly from the published numbers that have allowed for the survival of the state-funded power plant. Outraged, she confronts Bernd Doppler (Michael Mendl), founder and retiring operator of the plant, about the falsified data, and is blithely dismissed by him as naïve. There are echoes here as elsewhere of the European debt crisis, and of the frequent accusations concerning state fraud that have been hurled at, among others, the Greek government. The message is that falsification and deceit are not failures unique to any one state or organization, but activities of capitalism’s innate self-preservation.

The message is that falsification and deceit are not failures unique to any one state or organization, but activities of capitalism’s innate self-preservation.

“Fear is the worst enemy of progress,” he tells her, making it clear that the cold, hard facts Claudia has learned to master and strategically deploy have never been about demonstrating a command of the relevant knowledge. They have only been cudgels, used to validate the intuitions of whichever man was in power.

Like Charlotte, who singlehandedly manages the police department as Winden descends into paranoia, and Katharina, who holds together both her family and the distraught high school while her husband’s infidelity destroys their marriage, Claudia bears both the economic and emotional weight of her new and incredibly precarious situation. She will be responsible for guiding the town into the future through the dark, motivated only by a belief that what is good for the gander will also be good for the goose — and once it’s done, that there will be resolution, and peace, at home.

Claudia’s belief is misguided, but having been based on Bernd’s transparently capitalistic advice, it would be unfair to accuse her of poor judgment. To do so would be like accusing the mythical Greek princess Ariadne — whose presence looms, consistently and explicitly, throughout the series — of bad judgment, when in fact she was the victim of an agreement likely made in bad faith. After arming the Athenian hero Theseus with a spool of red thread, so that he can remember his way out from the Minotaur’s labyrinth, she engages him to marry her upon his victorious escape. Theseus obliges, but not too far into their happily ever after he neglects Ariadne, leaving her to die alone on the island of Naxos, while he consolidates his power back in Athens. In this perverse irony, it’s Ariadne’s own efforts to help Theseus remember — to help him preserve himself — that actually enable him to forget and abandon her, the epitome of women who are compromised by their emotional labor.

Fittingly, the princess’s story and iconography abound in Dark, conveying the moral entrapment of women in a capitalist society. Artistic depictions of Ariadne and of her father’s sadistic labyrinth appear often, many of them found inside the room of a mysterious hooded man who is a guest at the Wald Hotel (revealing his identity here would be a spoiler). Katharina’s daughter, Martha, also plays Ariadne in a school production of the myth, dramatizing the goddess’ tragic, complex story. And as if inside the Minoan labyrinth, Jonas Kahnwald finds the way between Winden’s timelines by means of a red string — the color of string Martha/Ariadne hands to Theseus in her play, and also the string that has been looped around the necks of the mutilated children found in the Winden Forest.

What are we to make of a thread that marks the way, and simultaneously distinguishes the bodies of those who’ve been lost? As with Ariadne’s thread, it represents both life and death, both memory and forgetting, and through this sets up the notion of an absurd and unresolvable conflict.

After her initial appearance Claudia disappears from the series, only to return in the final episodes, aged and presumably more radicalized. We come to find out that she has traveled through time to set in motion an event that will free Winden from its time loop — or at least that’s what she thinks. As we learn in voiceover from the series’ most sinister character, Noah (Mark Waschke), Claudia’s plan to liberate Winden is what actually creates the time loop in the first place. Like Ariadne, she has spooled the thread that will be the means of her own unraveling. And, like her namesake St. Claudia as well, who hears the voice of God in a dream and cautions her husband the Roman judge to spare Christ from crucifixion — unless, as some legends suggest, it was actually the voice of the Devil she heard, trying to prevent Christ’s sacrifice and man’s salvation. When Dark comes to a close at the end of its first season, this line of thought persists: Is there any way out? Will even our well-meaning intentions ultimately doom us?

There may be a way out, but the lesson of Dark is that by merely changing the bodies of those who manage our institutions — shifting ownership of the tools of capitalism, while still preserving capitalism — we will not preempt its cyclical terrors from visiting us again. As the women of Winden come to learn, equality with men under capitalism will not be equality at all. Like Theseus it’s a deal for parity and reciprocity made in bad faith, where men can still refuse to share the emotional labor or to play by the rules.

What Dark unquestionably succeeds at is in conjuring the terror and frustration when we realize too late that we’ve been misled — when the goalposts we aim at are constantly moved. Underneath the Stranger Things surface it offers a timely look at the deceit inherent in a capitalist patriarchy — a system where the ultimate power still lies in the hands of straight white men.

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