‘1899’ is a multilingual mystery from the creators of ‘Dark’ 

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Netflix’s “1899” released on Thursday, Nov. 17 from the creators of “Dark,” the streaming service’s first German-language original series. As the name suggests, the show is a period piece taking place in 1899, with aspects of mystery, science fiction and horror.  

“1899” follows a group of immigrants traveling on a steamship from London to New York City. When the ship repeatedly receives coordinates from its sister ship Prometheus, long-thought to be sunk or lost at sea, the captain decides to delay their arrival in search of the missing ship. This, of course, angers many of the passengers desperate to reach the United States and start their lives anew. When they reach the coordinates, a series of puzzling events kick off.  

The series uses the setting to create a multicultural and multilingual story, highlighting a wide array of travelers on the ship. Maura, an Englishwoman who can’t quite remember her ties to the lost Prometheus, serves as a doctor onboard despite not having been allowed to practice medicine back home. Eyk, the ship’s captain, hails from Germany and battles events of his past.  

“1899” also makes use of class divisions, something many of us have likely heard of when taught about the conditions aboard the Titanic. Those aboard the ship are faced with something far more mystical than an iceberg, however. A large Danish family is crammed into the dark and dreary bottom of the vessel and workers are constantly covered in sweat, doing the back-breaking work of shoveling coal to keep the ship running. Meanwhile, the wealthier guests live a lavish lifestyle with a view of the ocean, enjoying fine dining and the “cruise ship experience.”  

A main component of “1899” is its multilingual nature. Though English is spoken by a few characters, it is not the driving language; in fact none of the languages are. While watching characters communicate was interesting, much of the conversation happening felt as though it would be more one-sided in real life. For example, in one scene Lucien, an upper class Parisian, delivers a long dialogue to Ling Yi, a mysteriously put-together passenger from Hong Kong. Unable to understand one another, one would think the go-to motion is to ignore the dialogue or express that you don’t understand them. But in “1899” characters listen to and converse with one another in content, despite the fact that they can’t even begin to process their respective languages. While perhaps unrealistic, this does positively contribute to the idea that people can communicate with each other regardless of language barriers.  

Another jarring aspect is the series’ selection of background music. Tracks like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” were chosen to amplify eerie scenes; yet, the fact that these songs came out over half a century later makes them ill-fitting for the period piece. Perhaps alternate timelines are a part of the show’s many mysteries, but I have not made it far enough to tell if that’s the case.  

I will certainly keep watching however, because “1899” is unlike any show I’ve seen before. While the multilingual aspect can sometimes feel forced or unrealistic, it’s quite unique in nature and allows for a diverse cast. The series is filled with mysterious symbols and scrawled phrases, most of which are meaningless at the start of the show, but are sure to build upon each other and explain the intriguing questions surrounding the disappearance of the Prometheus. The intricate nature of “1899” leads me to suggest the answers to these questions will be well worth the watch.  

Rating: 4/5  

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