As someone who enjoys discovering lesser-known films and TV series from around the world, I applaud Netflix’s continued commitment to bringing a wide range of international fare to its platform—whether it’s South Korean zombie horror/period drama, modern Norwegian reworkings of Norse mythology, Arabic supernatural YA dramas, or Belgian sci-fi thrillers. And the excellent sci-fi series Dark recently wrapped a mind-bending third and final season on Netflix.
If that’s left you peckish for more German Netflix fare, you might check out two recent debuts: a sci-fi thriller series, Biohackers, about an ambitious young medical student seeking revenge on her mentor for the scientific sins of the past; and a film called Freaks: You’re One of Us, about a diner waitress who discovers she has a superpower—and she’s not the only “freak” with a special gift. Neither even comes close to the multilayered conceptual level of Dark, alas, but both provide well-executed, solid entertainment—and you won’t need a chart of multiple timelines to follow the plot.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
As we reported previously, showrunner Christian Ditter is best known in the United States for directing the 2016 rom-com How to Be Single and for his work on the 2017 Netflix comedy Girlboss, based on the autobiography of Sophia Amoruso, who founded the company Nasty Gal. (Girlboss received mixed reviews and was cancelled after one season.) Jessica Schwarz, best known stateside for her performance in the 2006 thriller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (based on the 1985 novel by Patrick Susskind), stars as Professor Tanja Lorenz. Swiss actress Luna Wedler plays Mia, a young medical student who gets drawn into the world of underground biohacking and illegal genetic-engineering experiments.
Per the official premise: “When Mia begins her medical degree, she seems like any other student. But when she gains the trust of the brilliant Professor Lorenz, it becomes apparent that she’s hiding a secret so big it could change the fate of humanity.” The series opens with a number of train passengers suddenly falling ill, with Mia—the only one unaffected—trying desperately to save them. But we soon flashback to two weeks earlier, when she arrives in Freiburg to begin her medical studies at the university.
Her new roommates are a quirky bunch. Lotta (Caro Cult) has aristocratic ties and a promiscuous bent. Ole (Sebastian Jakob Doppelbauer) is a hard-core biohacker who posts online videos detailing his extreme experiments on himself and laments his low follower count. And Chen-Lu (Jing Xiang) is a hyperactive, fast-talking genetics whiz who can’t wait to demonstrate her “bio-piano” (musical plants) for Mia. When Mia meets Jasper (Adrian Julius Tillmann), Lorenz’s right hand, she sees a chance to combine romance with gaining access to the professor’s top-secret research—revenge for the wrongs she believes Lorenz visited upon her and her (now deceased) family.
All the right science-y buzzwords are here, and there are no glaringly obvious howlers, although the idea that Lorenz could predict everything about a person based solely on their genetic profile is a major stretch for Purposes of the Plot. She is correct to be suspicious of Mia’s (faked) DNA profile because Mia has freckles while lacking the primary gene responsible. But even a fairly simple trait like freckles likely has more than one genetic component. This is a minor quibble, since the science is mostly just decorative and secondary to the personal and professional intrigue anyway.
Another minor quibble: one would expect the brilliant Mia—who shows up on day one of class having already done the required reading and plenty more besides—to be familiar with the green fluorescent protein that gives Jasper’s pet mouse its greenish hue. The protein was first isolated in the 1960s and 1970s, and scientists have been making animals glow (under UV light) for at least two decades (mice, rabbits, cats, pigs, monkeys, and zebrafish, for instance).
At times, Biohackers feels like it’s trying too hard to be cool, but the writing is solid (if a bit predictable in early episodes), and the performances are strong (especially Schwarz and Tillman)—plus there are a couple of surprising twists. As is often the case with Netflix shows, it ends on a cliffhanger to set up a potential second season, and it’s clear the game has changed dramatically. Pro tip: watch the (easily bingeable) six episodes in the original German with subtitles. Netflix offers an English-dubbed version, but it’s pretty awful—especially whoever is voicing Ole as if he were a stoner surfer dude.
Freaks: You’re One of Us
If you’re more in the mood for a German twist on The X-Men, Freaks: You’re One of Us mostly delivers. Per the official premise: “Wendy (Cornelia Gröschel), a young working-class mom, realizes that years of medication have suppressed her latent supernatural powers. She meets a stranger, Marek (Wotan Wilke Möhring), with the same background, and finds out that her co-worker, Elmar (Tim Oliver Schultz), is also similarly gifted. Question is: what will she do with her new powers?”
That’s an accurate, succinct summation, and the first half of the film takes the time to flesh things out and set up some interesting dynamics. Wendy and her husband Lars (Frederic Linkemann) are struggling to pay the bills and are on the verge of being evicted. They can’t even afford to fill the small pool in the backyard with water. She’s due for a promotion at work, but her supervisor, Angela (Gisa Flake) keeps finding excuses to deny the admittedly timid Wendy advancement no matter how hard she works (Angela peppers her with aphorisms from the wise life lessons of Arnold Schwarzenegger instead). Wendy gets no respect from the customers and is frequently harassed by a group of men on her regular nightly walk home from work.
There are also hints of a tragic childhood incident involving Wendy; she’s been in therapy for years with Dr. Stern (Nina Kunzendorf). But when she meets the homeless Marek (Wotan Wilke Möhring) by the diner dumpsters, he tells her, “You’re one of us” and urges her to go off her meds. She is curious, and frustrated, enough to give it a try. That’s when her super-strength emerges. Marek can’t be hurt or killed, and her co-worker Elmar (Tim Oliver Schultz) discovers he can channel electricity when he also goes off his meds. (He dubs himself “Electro-Man.”)
It’s Gröschel’s sensitive, nuanced performance as Wendy that carries this film, as she slowly transforms from a meek, somewhat-depressed young woman with low confidence into someone who must now struggle to control a dangerous superpower—and elude the people who would try to muzzle her again. It’s initially gratifying to see Wendy exact revenge upon the people who’ve taken advantage of her meekness in the past, but things begin to spiral out of control when Elmar convinces her they must find a way to use their powers for good—even as Marek urges them both to remain under the radar. (“We can’t live with normal people. If they catch us, they’ll lock us up.”) Naturally, this puts further strain on her marriage, and puts her young son, Karl (Finnlay Berger) at risk.
Unfortunately, after a very strong first half, Freaks falls prey to some predictable turns, because—let’s face it—even if the term “mutants” is never used, we’ve seen some version of this story countless times before. We know the beats. That said, I liked the dry humorous touches, and the film’s muted, bittersweet conclusion, which successfully avoids the typical Hollywood tropes when it comes to concluding superhero movies. The ending is not an obvious setup for a sequel, yet it leaves room for some interesting developments should a sequel transpire. I, for one, would be interested to see the next step in Wendy’s evolution.
Both Biohackers and Freaks: You’re One of Us are currently streaming on Netflix. In German with English subtitles.