Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar have earned patience. The German creators of the cult mystery-thriller Dark forced their viewers to trust them. Through three seasons of Dark very little made sense, as Friese and bo Odar kept a growing audience largely, well, in the dark. With their new Netflix show, 1899, the creators follow the same path, crafting a world shrouded in mystery, and often, confusion.
With a massive ensemble of European actors, the mystery series follows a ship heading towards America. When encountering another vessel that had been missing for several months, the captain, Eyk (Andreas Pietschmann), decides to investigate, setting off a sea of events which make little to no sense at first glance. Pietschmann, a Dark alumnus, commands the majority of scenes alongside Emily Beecham, the latter of whom plays an English passenger who is central to the story Friese and bo Odar attempt to tell. Both seem more than up to the task, as does the rest of this large cast, composed of characters speaking their own native languages—a disconnect both internal and external when watching 1899.
The choice to allow the actors to constantly be speaking different languages is certainly laudable, regardless of its effectiveness. It’s a multicultural story, hoping to capture the perspectives of dissimilar classes, habits, ethnicities, and values, striving to give every viewer someone to latch onto aboard this ship. Though this language-hopping settles into a groove of sorts, 1899—like Friese and bo Odar’s previous show—requires the audience to be paying attention. It’s not a series you can watch with any distractions. It’s an active experience, contrary to a sizable swath of the other programming on streaming services.
As the episodes go by (six of which were available to screen for critics, out of eight), more questions continue to pop up, with answers coming sparingly. The German team isn’t rushing towards a conclusion. They take their time, giving several of their characters extended dream sequences, injecting new plot lines without a second thought. Still, most of the show’s runtime concerns itself with Eyk and Emily, two characters who have experienced intense loss. And that’s what Friese and bo Odar seem focused on: the impact of loss and grief on a person.
The series thrives when it centers on this examination of loss mixed with a dash of memory. Weaving together a perplexing narrative and a density of themes creates a singular experience, one that audiences know Friese and bo Odar can achieve. For now, though, everyone must wait patiently, and that anticipation and added expectation causes difficulty within the first few episodes of 1899. There aren’t any revelations about life, yet. There aren’t nearly enough answers, yet. There isn’t a point to this madness, yet.
Dark ended up being a time travel show, not necessarily about travel, but more about time. It also became a show about loss, about love, and about everything in between. It landed massive payoffs after three seasons of investment, and 1899 looks to follow the same pattern. Seedlings of more profound truths have been laid already, though it remains to be seen if the creators can dock another shaky, tumultuous ship.
With magnificent production design, multiple languages, solid performances, and an incredibly twisting story, 1899 has the makings of a show that will be beloved by few but unseen by many. Like their previous show, the creators end each episode with a mini recap of each of their main characters, as a classic rock song blares in the background. It actually gives the viewer a sense of normalcy amongst a deluge of confusion. It represents a steadiness that can feel intangible. These are sure hands, even if we’re being led into the dark—an apt metaphor for a show that’s hiding many, many secrets,
For first-time watchers of Friese and bo Odar, 1899 might be too discombobulated to enjoy. It will lose viewers with its lack of satisfying answers, and its disconnected language gamble. But the mystery shifts and buzzes when given time and energy. It snatches at you, gnaws at you, wants to nestle inside your mind as you await the next episode, even if the story is as jumbled as many have experienced. It remains to be seen what this mystery is all about, but I’ll continue to be on this journey. Friese and bo Odar have earned my, and many others’, patience.
1899 premieres Thursday, November 17th on Netflix.
Brooklyn-based film and TV journalist Michael Frank contributes to several outlets including The Film Stage, RogerEbert, AwardsWatch, and now Paste. He believes Juliette Binoche deserved an Oscar for Dan in Real Life. You can find him on Twitter.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.