There’s something that feels very German about a dark forest setting, even when you have scores of Roman legions staggering across the foliage as Rammstein slow-burns its way through the intro of Deutschland.
My bad, I must have gotten them mixed up – this is the Netflix series Barbarians. Or Barbaren, if you are one of those who absolutely must refer to the show by its original name. A German production, the new Netflix series revolves around the chieftain Arminius, who united warring Germanic tribes to challenge the all-conquering Romans in 9 CE. Season 1 is written around the era-defining Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, regarded by many historians as the Romans' worst defeat in history. Agustus Caesar would never again attempt to subjugate the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine.
The classic underdog victory is almost always a shoo-in for the big screen, albeit all 55 inches of it these days. As expected, the writers take a few liberties with the screenplay to make the narrative flow as well as to keep the woke police away. (The battle of Teutoburg Forest is often associated with far-right nationalism) In the Netflix rendition, Arminius (Laurance Rupp) was a prince of the Cherusci tribe who was held hostage by Rome – specifically, governor Publius Quinctilius Varus (not a Square Enix character, played by Gaetano Aronica) at a young age. Taken at a young age and away from close friends Thusnelda (Jeanne Goursaud) and Folkwin Wolfspeer (David Schütter), Arminius grew up a Roman in all but name; drafted into the military, gained citizenship and made a Roman Knight. The series picks up from the day Arminius returns to his Germanic home and documents his journey from Roman eques to Barbarian king, culminating in the decisive battle that would define the history of Europe.
Barbarian won approval from historical buffs for its uncompromising attention to detail in reproducing period-correct costumes and armour. The showrunners went one further and had the Romans speak in Latin, and Germanic tribes speak German (don’t ask me how historically accurate the languages are). This decision might be off-putting to those who don’t enjoy reading subtitles, which takes your eye off the action, but the vibe is perfect. I can’t imagine that the warring sides have it any better, having to rely on translators for banter and pithy putdowns. The commitment to accuracy is such that neither sides have a stand-up comic with a crowd-friendly one-liner in their ranks. Yes, they play it straight and humourless here. Perfectly fine by me, by the way.
While you are not likely to find many familiar faces here, the cast, for the most part, is decent. Everyone is on point with their delivery, no matter how small a role or how mundane. Thusnelda’s father, Segestes (Bernhard Schütz) – who is a key instigator in moving the plot along – has a constant scowl that sets the tone for much of the show’s interpersonal tensions. The depiction of Arminius' struggle with his identity slowly coalescing with Thusnelda’s assertion of her destiny, is predictable if not surefooted. Varus' painful realisation of his betrayal and recognition of his hubris will evoke genuine sympathy, if just for a moment. Folkwin Wolfspeer is the token ‘cool name bro’ guy who plays Mr ‘Collateral Damage’ to perfection. However, he’s used a little too often as a plot device to kickstart the engines of war, and perhaps sowing the seeds for Season 2 (literally and figuratively). The characters are all likeable, though not to the extent that you would bond with them.
The striking Goursaud, who aces it as the warrior-queen archetype Thusnelda, might the exception. Thusnelda is perhaps the only lead allowed to demonstrate an emotional range that extends beyond anger and anguish. Arminius perpetually looks as though he’s trying to keep a straight face while remembering that he might have left the stove on, while Folkwin is quite convinced that he left his on.
Despite their best efforts, Barbarians is highly predictable. It is a little slow on the action, which is understandable given that the series is essentially a build-up to the eponymous battle. As a result, the drama is driven along by the dynamics between the lead characters. By the middle of the series, Barbarians had degenerated into a Miles Knightly double-cross relay, where every interaction is a setup for some form of betrayal, or a meta-betrayal that further sets itself up for a bigger payoff. But not to worry, there are no universe-breaking plot twists waiting to trigger your Last Jedi PTSD. The eventual payoff was decent (if you don’t compare it to Vikings or [insert last big production historical epic you watched here]), if a little short. It’s a shame when you consider that the real-life battle lasted four days.
With Vikings setting such a high bar, Barbarian might feel a little left in the shade. However, with only six episodes, it’s worth the weekend binge in the sense that it will probably be over before you start to get annoyed at show’s relatively slow pacing.