This is a part review as I’m just past the halfway point of this German production. There are some inevitable twists coming but I think I have a good sense of the series now. The obvious comparisons are with Twin Peaks and Stranger Things but both comparisons are misleading. The show has very little in common with either of those when it comes to the tone or the non-science fiction elements. The similarity lies in the basic premise and the setting but if you tune in expecting humour of Stranger Things or the oddball qualities of Twin Peaks, you will be disappointed. A better comparison might be with the US/UK show The Oaks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oaks_Trilogy ) which used time periods and supernatural elements to examine different families. [ETA: less similar in terms of plot but Fortitude has a similar mix of heavy drama with SF elements]
The show has a double setting – primarily the focus is on the town of Winden in 2019. The town is set amid an extensive forest and the main employer is a nuclear power plant – which is scheduled to be decommissioned in the near future. In 1986, thirty-three years earlier, the show we meet many of the same characters as teenagers or younger adults. Joining the two eras are a series of disappearances of boys and what is best described as a presence in the Winden Caves that lie deep in the forest and which extend towards the power plant.
It is no spoiler to say this is a time-travel/time-slip mystery. From the beginning elements such as clocks are underlined, we get repeated quotes from Einstein, snippets of lectures on Black Holes, and an old guy warning that ‘it is happening again’. On top of that, we get an opening title sequence that (very effectively) uses reflections to create a disturbing view of the normal and a teacher lecturing his class on the use of symmetry and foreshadowing in the work of Goethe. I wonder if the producers entirely trusted their audience to follow where the show wanted to go.
The pay off comes at the end of episode three when the connections between 2019 and 1986 characters are made overt. What was an initially a confusing set of characters becomes clearer as the set of families involved and the relationships between them become clearer. Betrayals and loss and teenage romance form a web and events between the two eras become more entwined.
The science fiction plot is not new but is well executed even if some aspects may seem familiar (e.g. one Doctor Who episode in particular which I won’t name because of spoilers but which you can probably guess). It is well supported by an eery tone and really unsettling music that creates an atmosphere of malevolence. To what extent the underlying evil at work is supernatural, human-made, science-fictional or metaphysical is still unclear – and of course, it is more than likely a full resolution won’t be given.
There are a few hints to a fairy-tale aspect to the story: children lost in the primordial forest, caves, labyrinths, but also a repeated motif around foxes.
Some misses: the only gay character is portrayed as this being their shameful secret – which also leads to a cliched representation of a transgender character as a sex worker. There is also an annoying apparent amnesia among the 2019 cast about things we know they witnessed in 1986. These are not the genre-savvy protagonists of Stranger Things – in particular, Ulrich who is a detective in 2019 and a surly teenager in 1986 takes an age to spot an important connection and nearly ALL the adult of 2019 appear to have missed something very obvious (although distrubingly mind-bending) about somebody they all knew.
In the defence of the adult characters in 2019, they all have messed up personal lives and what the show does well is connect the toxic relationships between the families (and their 2019 teenage children) with the ongoing trauma of missing boys both in 2019 and 1986.
I prefer more humour to leaven the creepiness but the serious tone does work with this show. The tone is more serious British drama than pop-culture SF but it does drag you in to a story that uses familiarity to unsettle you.
- I have four episodes left to watch. Events in 1953 are now in play and at least one character has a better sense of what is going on.
- Lots of content warnings around child endangerment and kidnapping themes. Some disturbing images and an unsettling tone.
- Netflix has an English audio track but I found the German audio with English subtitles easier to watch.