BINGE-R #72: Dark + The Polka King
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
Netflix’s first original German production begins with shots inside a scary bunker, an Einstein quote about time’s flexibility, and a man calmly hanging himself. It is serious about its grimness, but at the same time it is consumed with bizarre events and conspiratorial science-fiction. In other words, Barab bo Odar and Jantje Friese’s series is full of stranger things, but despite the surface similarities – including teenagers on bikes, missing children, and a looming structure, in this case a nuclear power plant, liberally filled with the foreboding – it’s not actually Stranger Things. It has a menacing pitch and a sparse but recognisable European sensibility – mournful cello descents are the score’s recurring weapon.
Initially set in 2019, with one child already missing in the supposedly quiet German town of Winden, it introduces four families of parents and teenage children whose lives are intertwined by history, friendship, deceit and affairs. “There are things out there our little minds will never comprehend,” declares one character, and the show wastes no time in depicting them as the high school students’ late night expedition to the local cave system resulting in a second missing child and a second storyline in 1986, when the parents are teenagers and similar problems are afoot.
Behind the mysterious hooded strangers and glimpses of unknown experimentation, time in Dark is both flexible in terms of travel and forever locked emotionally. The obsession that young Hannah Kruger (Ella Lee) has for Ulrich Neilsen (Ludger Bokelmann) in 1986 is equally strong in 2019, when she is widowed (Maja Schone) and he is a married police officer (Oliver Masucci). These scenes that derive drama from real life conflict have to work, if not then the series is essentially an otherworldly conspiracy making you wait for answers. But Dark doesn’t match the genre’s best examples: Australian freak-out The Kettering Incident and the French invocation Les Revenants.
Everything is connected and the foreshadowing is perpetual; by the third episode you don’t need a teacher explaining doubling in Goethe’s writing to get what’s going on. A flash of humour or a mundane moment might help, yet if you’re susceptible to high concept loopiness the show is undeniably gripping. There’s excellent use of split screen to align different ages of the same character, and at the end of the fifth episode you actually get a definitive answer to one mystery that makes up for the inability of various investigators to compare notes and work together. Before starting make sure you turn off the clumsy English language dub and use subtitles. You’ll have to work harder, but it’s minor compared to how diligently Dark generates this inexplicable but interlocking realm.
In Brief: MANHUNT: UNABOMBER S1 (Netflix): This investigation procedural about the hunt for the letter bomb sending and manifesto writing American domestic terrorist who was apprehended in 1996 is a decent drama, but the fictional rewrites deaden its plausibility and appeal. In a role beefed up beyond the case’s reality, Sam Worthington plays Jim Fitzgerald, the awkward and soon obsessive FBI profiler whose work on language eventually draws a bead on their target after 18 years of official pursuit. Fitzgerald’s main quarry is his doubting superiors, but it’s noticeable that the most evocative episode, in terms of content and direction, is the one that explores the isolated life in Montana of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany), a genius living in a log cabin at odds with society and himself. Bettany’s Kaczynski is better than the show assembled around him.
The Polka King (Netflix, 2018, 94 minutes): This middling comedy allows Jack Black to do two things he excels at: jump around on stage as the lunatic frontman of a band, and play an accommodating optimist in a true crime story who can’t control their worsening circumstances. In a stranger than fiction story (Netflix also has the 2009 documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King as corroborating evidence), Black plays Polish immigrant Jan Lewan, whose embrace of the archetypal American dream manifests itself in dreams of a polka-based music empire and a classic Ponzi scheme where he bilked elderly Pennsylvanian retirees out of millions. Maya Forbes’ film suggests Lewan was good-hearted but out of his depth, but moral investigation is sidelined by broad accents and bizarre episodes, which includes meeting Pope John Paul II and rigging the Mrs. Pennsylvania pageant for his beloved wife, Marla (Jenny Slate). It’s a ramshackle film with too much polka music, but perfectly cast – Jacki Weaver is a hoot as Jan’s doubting mother-in-law.
New on Netflix: The jaunty, diverse pleasures of Marvel’s intergalactic superhero squad, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, 136 minutes), which is directed with pop glee by James Gunn; Ethan Hawke as the iconic trumpeter Chet Baker in the jazz biopic Born to Be Blue (2015, 97 minutes), a study of recovery where the addictions include your own legend.
New on SBS On Demand: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in one of the great screen romances, Todd Haynes wrenching 1950s drama Carol (2015, 118 minutes); the bittersweet comic coming of age tale Adventureland, with fine performances from Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg.
New on Stan: Even as one of his lesser films, David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002, 108 minutes) is a solid architectural and crime thriller, with Jodie Foster and a young Kristen Stewart as mother and daughter pursued by an unstable trio of home invaders.
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