How German Show ‘1899’ Saved Netflix’s Very Bad Year in TV

At the Primetime Emmys in September, Netflix’s 2021 smash-hit Squid Game made history when it took home the lead actor and directing drama prizes. In their respective categories, both Lee Jung-jae and Hwang Dong-hyuk became the first-ever Asian winners, native Korean winners, and first winners for a non-English language series. That meant Netflix finally had something to celebrate in a year defined by backlash stemming from cancellations, layoffs, and bad reviews for its biggest shows—not to mention hemorrhaging subscriber numbers.

Squid Game is far from an anomaly in Netflix’s pantheon of global hits that are not in the English language. It follows popular shows like Lupin, Money Heist, Narcos, Dark, and Elite. The streamer is available worldwide, so it makes sense that viewers want to watch titles from different markets, regardless of the language or setting. In 2015, The Washington Post proclaimed that “Netflix is tricking audiences into embracing subtitles” thanks to shows like Narcos. (Which is a choice of phrasing that, now, certainly seems inelegant.)

Seven years later, the amount of non-English language series on the streamer continues to rise. A recent Whip Media report indicates that, of the new Netflix shows in development, 38 percent are in a language other than English. Of course, a Squid Game success story is rare—even more so when a series is not based on existing IP. It is notable, however, that Netflix continues to thrive in this sector and is still sinking money in splashy productions like the German series 1899, which was released last month.

Given that 1899 topped the chart of Netflix’s most-watched shows in the weeks after it premiered, it’s clear that views are demanding more global content as well.

One of the best non-English language shows of the last few years (on any platform) is the brain-wrinkling Dark, which is why 1899, the next time-bending adventure from Dark creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, has become such an event. And this time, a casting twist taps into one of Netflix’s brightest and most appealing assets: its international acting roster.

1899 set sail last month to solid reviews. (And is not to be confused with the growing Yellowstone prequel universe taking their titles from the year they are set.)

The series takes place aboard the Kerberos migrant steamship, which is sailing to the United States from Europe. Rather than an all-German cast, the showrunners assembled an ensemble reflecting the array of nationalities who would’ve been immigrating to New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Not everyone speaks English, and as anyone who has watched Titanic (or even the Saoirse Ronan-starring Brooklyn) knows, the class divide leaves plenty of room for conflict, romance, and crossed wires.

Everyone aboard the ship (or at least the ones with a speaking role) is running away from something, making the transatlantic journey tinged with fear and hope. Well, that is until everything goes to shit, and it tips squarely into mindfuck territory. Honestly, I would watch this show even without the trippy supernatural events that turn this from a typical historical drama into a science fiction mystery. Affairs, hidden identities, and murder are just a handful of the secrets that threaten to transform this vessel a powder keg.

The show is set more than a decade before the Titanic takes its ill-fated maiden voyage, so icebergs are not a concern. Instead, the missing steamship Prometheus provides a cautionary tale of what might go wrong. So when the vessel reappears with no one but a creepy child on board, the mood is far from celebratory. Throw hard-to-explain deaths and strange devices into the mix, and the vibes are soured even further.

The narrative is purposefully confusing at times; at one point, the hot captain astutely says, “none of this makes sense.” As a fan of Dark, the puzzle-box details and existential-heavy conversations were an expectation—and once again, let me put my philosophy undergraduate degree to good use. Newcomers might find it difficult to untangle the various threads at first. Still, it isn’t all unfamiliar territory, as the 1899 casting directors Lucy Bevan and Emily Brockmann have assembled a host of familiar faces that fans of other Netflix titles will recognize.

In some respects, it is akin to an all-star cast on a reality competition series. Instead, it is actors from an array of Netflix titles, including Elite, Dark, Borgen, Elite, Peaky Blinders, The Witcher, The Crown, and Anatomy of a Scandal. If you watch 1899 and don’t utter, “Hey! It’s that person from that thing!” at least five times, then you clearly don’t watch enough TV.

I spent half the first episode wondering where I knew Krester (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen) from. (The answer is Borgen, to save you from looking it up.) Immediately recognizing actor Miguel Bernardeau as one of the maybe murderous teens from the Spanish series Elite clued me into which country his character is from before he even opened his mouth.

Having this level of recognition while the more perplexing elements of the story unfurl is an anchor in this unstable sea. Nine languages are spoken: English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Japanese, Polish, French, and Danish. Meanwhile, fear and love oscillate equally and break through the spoken divide. It is this shared experience that 1899 taps into, whether it is the passengers or the audience at home.

Refusing to dumb down language diversity is an effective way to increase the tension between the characters. Yes, the audience knows what is said when Krester bursts into the plush first-class dining room begging for a doctor. Still, other diners have to read between the lines as to why he needs a medical professional. Confusion is baked into this story, and an inability to communicate with words when the boat becomes unsafe is an additional barrier to circumvent.

Shared language immediately groups characters together when fear leads to irrational outrage. However, some find common ground despite a lack of verbal understanding. Heightened situations increase the possibility of romance, and 1899 isn’t lacking in the horny department either. After all, love has its own language, and crackling chemistry needs zero translation.

In the past, Nordic Noir hits like Fobrydelsen (The Killing) and Bron/Broen (The Bridge) have enticed audiences and spawned international remakes, but those releases were not on the scale of the Netflix operation. A recent report of how many hours people have spent watching series on Netflix said that 1899 clocked 87.9 million hours viewed—ahead of The Crown and sitting behind juggernaut Wednesday.

It is also notable that, in contrast Tim Burton’s Addams Family adventure, the British Royal family in dramatized (and now documentary form), and the Evan Peters-starring Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, 1899 is the only original title among all this IP.

1899 isn’t doing Squid Game figures, but it is helping Netflix right its ship after hitting rough waters in 2022. In a bad year for the platform—not just in terms of business, but with many of its English-language hits getting panned with bad reviews—it’s the foreign-language series that could be turning the ship around.

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