The showrunners behind Netflix’s first original German production, supernatural thriller Dark, tell DQ why auteur filmmakers are migrating from big screen to small.
When Netflix commissioners were looking for creatives to helm what would become the global streaming giant’s first original German series production, they turned to the film festival circuit.
As with previous Netflix shows such as The OA and Dear White People, which came from the minds of Britt Marling and Justin Simian respectively, the subscription service sought out indie auteur filmmakers – specifically, the director-writer duo of Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese.
The husband-and-wife pair had scored a hit at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with their hacker thriller Who Am I – No System is Safe, and Netflix approached them to see if they would be keen to adapt the movie into a series. “We said no,” Odar recalls, “because we don’t like to repeat ourselves. We get bored easily and we like to live in a world for a couple of months and then leave it and go into another world.”
Nevertheless, he and Friese had other ideas in mind, including a missing-teen thriller that blended elements of Nordic noir (think shows such as The Killing and Trapped) with a supernatural twist (à la Stranger Things and Les Revenants).
“Dark was an idea we’d had for a very long time, in different forms,” Odar says. “The title always stayed the same, like a good band, but the music changed. It was once a feature film, which was more like a Stephen King, It kind of story and then it morphed into a very typical crime story for the UK market.”
After shelving the idea for a period and later returning to it, the pair finally decided “to combine it with another idea we had, which was a supernatural twist idea, and all of a sudden a new world opened up for us,” Odar explains. “That’s what we pitched Netflix and they immediately loved the idea – that combination of family drama TV show meets supernatural phenomena.”
Dark takes place in a small German town that’s living in the shadow of a soon-to-close nuclear power plant. The disappearance of a teenage boy marks the start of a series of eerie events, putting the show’s large cast (consisting of some 72 characters) increasingly on edge.
“We both come from a small town and we’ve always been interested in the secrets and sins of people living in small towns,” says Friese, the show’s writer and co-creator. “What really happens with your neighbours and what dark avarices can you find behind their front door?”
After previewing Dark’s first two episodes at TIFF in September, Netflix launched the 10-part German-language series globally in December. The show was produced by German indie Wiedemann & Berg Film (Who Am I, Welcome to Germany), with Justyna Muesch, Quirin Berg and Max Wiedemann as executive producers alongside Friese and Odar. Amanda Krentzman, Netflix senior manager for international originals, is the exec producer for the streamer.
Friese says making the move from the world of feature films to TV was a liberating experience “because basically you have someone who says, ‘OK, this is your idea, this is how you want to make it, go ahead and make it.’ And then you just start right into it.”
She adds: “In Germany, you have so many people who have their own agenda, and when they put money into a project you get lots of notes; you kind of lose your train of thought with what you wanted to do. But it was very different with Netflix.”
Netflix’s first German series commission marks just one of a series of international initiatives to be unveiled by the streaming giant in recent months. The company made headlines in September when it unveiled a controversial, five-year original production strategy in Canada, worth some C$500m (US$398.85m). The move, announced in partnership with the Canadian government, represents Netflix’s first commissioning hub outside the US and will result in original titles in both English and French.
The same month, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Spoor, Europa Europa) signed up to direct the SVoD service’s first original Polish series. The as-yet-untitled, eight-episode show will be a Cold War spy thriller, shot in cities in Poland. Written and created by Joshua Long, it promises to deliver an alternative reality in which the Iron Curtain never fell.
And a month later, Netflix detailed its first Middle Eastern production: a comedy special starring Lebanese comedian and actor Adel Karam, which is expected to launch this year.
Despite Dark being touted as Netflix’s flagship German production, with a second season recently confirmed, Odar and Friese say they did not set out to create a particularly German-feeling show. “We always try to create stories that work internationally because we watch movies and series from all over the world and want the same with our stories,” Odar explains. “We like genre mixes. We’re influenced a lot by South Korean movies, which do that a lot, such as Bong Joon-Ho’s movies like The Host or Mother. He always combines comedy with horror, or comedy with crime, and we like that. For us, a typical thriller gets pretty boring.
“So we didn’t approach this project trying to make just a German show or just an international show; it should be for everyone.”
As for Dark’s distinct visual style, Friese says the team worked with director of photography Nikolaus Summerer to craft an offbeat suburban landscape that was partly inspired by the work of New York-based photographer Gregory Crewdson.
“He does this photography of suburbia where you have these really wide shots where, for example, you have a person standing naked with a suitcase, and you have no idea what’s happening. It’s like mystery photography. It creates this suspense. That was actually a starting point to find the look we were searching for.”
Odar adds that the creative freedom afforded by Netflix, combined with the flexibility to create something of scale and scope, came in stark contrast to the typical constraints of feature cinema. “Most filmmakers right now feel that creating a series, or a limited series, is much more intriguing or interesting, because you actually tell stories that studios don’t tell anymore on the big screen,” he says. “Nowadays it’s all superheroes, sequels, reboots and stuff like that, and that’s pretty boring for a filmmaker.
“We like some of the Marvel movies, but you can’t just wash away the market with superhero movies. It’s very boring. A cheeseburger is great, especially when you have a hangover, but you can’t have a cheeseburger every day.
“That’s the new future for filmmakers right now,” Odar adds, “something like Netflix or Amazon, where you can actually go and tell a drama. No one is making drama for the [movie] theatre anymore, or, if they are, it’s so small and low budget that no one watches it, which is also very frustrating for a filmmaker.”