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The Germany-made thriller has made it to the “top 10” list of the streaming platform in more than 90 countries by breaking away from conventional tropes and mixing in German narrative techniques.
September 27, 2023
BERLIN — If you were looking for proof that Germany is actually capable of producing high-quality series and movies, just take a look at Netflix. Last year, the streaming giant distributed the epic anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front, which won four Academy Awards, while series like Dark and Kleo have received considerable attention abroad.
And now the latest example of the success of German content is Netflix’s new crime series Dear Child, (Liebes Kind), which started streaming on Sep. 7. Within 10 days, the six-part series had garnered some 25 million views.
The series has now reached first place among non-English-language series on Netflix. In more than 90 countries, the psychological thriller has made it to the Netflix top 10 list — even beating the hit manga series One Piece last week.
How did it manage such a feat? What did Dear Child do that other productions didn't?
Far from same old tropes
Dear Child is based on Romy Hausmann’s debut novel of the same name, which was published in 2019 and quickly became an international bestseller. The adaptation by directors and screenwriters Isabel Kleefeld and Julian Pörksen appealed to the novel's large fan base. But as the flop TV series The Swarm recently proved, simply adapting a bestseller for the screen isn’t enough. What sets Dear Child apart is that it does not seek to comment on German history — neither on East Germany and the Weimar Republic nor on National Socialism. There also is no trace of the 1980s nostalgia that has made shows like Stranger Things so popular.
The story takes place on two different timelines, jumping back and forth. The “past” segment consists of a Kammerspiel of sorts, a chamber play with a few characters interacting in a confined space. We see a kidnapped mother and her two children and how they go about everyday life in a tiny room. Sometimes their captor comes in and orchestrates some twisted game for the family: The prisoners have to extend both arms forward to show that they are defenseless. If they behave, they get a chocolate bar.
The kidnapper doesn't just let his victims go.
The rest of the action takes place in the present as detectives investigate the perpetrator, long after the kidnapped victims have escaped and reintegrated into society. Unlike the 2015 drama Room or the film adaptation of Natascha Kampusch’s 3,096 Days, the events after their liberation are just as important as the captivity. This makes following the horrific story a little more bearable.
It also helps that their escape is shown a couple of minutes into the very first episode. This doesn’t take away from the suspense; quite the opposite. Firstly, the kidnapper doesn't just let his victims go, but tries to bring them back to his dungeon in the forest. The 2020 horror film The Invisible Man played out such a post-escape chase scenario in a similarly stirring way. But what is different here is the realization, which plays out in the first of the six episodes, that the woman who managed to escape has the same name as one “Lena”, who has been missing for 12 years. She has the same scar, but she is is obviously not Lena. Is she even the mother of the two kidnapped children? The voiceovers that are meant to reflect the thoughts of the individual characters are also particularly eerie — or are they not their thoughts at all?
A dark series
The climax of the series is just as grand as the beginning, with everything coming together in a shattering finale. One of Dear Child's strengths is the tension it manages to build and maintain from the very first minute. New suspects are constantly introduced, with great skill. There’s no one you can trust — not the grandparents, not the children, the police or the youth welfare office – even though all the characters seem likeable enough, which makes everything so much more complicated.
In the end, the success of the series may be explained by the fact that it simply tells a good story without trying to be obsessively political. The depiction of the woman as a projection device, which follows in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, is certainly interesting. Plus, there’s a cool inspector.
Dear Child is about children, yes. But there is more to it. It also reminds us of the “dear child” chased by a supernatural being in Goethe’s poem Erlkönig. “You dear child, come, go with me!” begs the cruel fantasy figure of the Erlkönig, the king of fairies who tries to seduce the boy, and ends up kidnapping and raping him. Maybe the father figure and the Erlkönig are the same person. Like Goethe’s famous ballad, the series plays with various levels of perception and toys with the psychology of our unconscious.
A dark series, then, that may not be advisable if you’re looking to “Netflix and chill” — unless you want the chill to run down your spine.
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