Philip Koch’s post-apocalyptic series gives us teens, tropes, and teases galore, finding glimmers of potential even as it hews creakily to formula.
The apocalypse is never further from our minds in science fiction, to the point where any civilization set after mankind’s inevitable collapse invariably lands on a host of tropes and conventions touched on by a million stories before it. Tribes of Europa, Germany’s latest addition to Netflix’s sci-fi television stable after the incredible Dark, makes the head-scratching decision to use all of them. There’s a Mysterious Cataclysm that knocks out all technology, roving bands of survivors battling each other for resources and power, a Magic MacGuffin that might lead to salvation and must be protected at all costs, the list goes on. And yet, there’s an ineffable charm to the six too-brief episodes of its inaugural season, chiefly due to the stalwart effects work and production design, and game performances from a cast that recognizes the story’s innate schlock factor.
The year is 2074, and mankind has collapsed in the wake of a total technology blackout forty-five years prior (known only as “Black December”); Europe collapses into “Europa,” a tenuous wasteland of varying tribes either trying to survive or carve out fiefdoms of their own. There’s the Crimson Republic, for instance, a militarized US-style society whose outward benevolence may hide sinister intentions; the Crows, OTT leather fetishists with Furiosa makeup and a penchant for brutality and violence; and the Origines, a small collective of peaceful scavengers who largely try to keep to themselves. Their peaceful existence is shattered, however, when a mysterious hovercraft crashlands near their village, and three teen siblings — Kiano (Emilio Sakraya), Liv (Henriette Confurius), and Elja (David Ali Rashed) — happen across the dying pilot, who claims to be from Atlantia, a distant tribe that hasn’t been affected by Black December.
Of course, the crash attracts the attention of the Crows, who ravage the village in search of the craft. In the melee, the surviving Origines are taken prisoner, and the three kids are scattered to the winds: Kiano struggles to survive in the cut-throat city of the Crows, while Liz petitions the Crimson Republic for help and Elja goes on the run with a roguish tinkerer (Dark‘s Oliver Masucci) to decipher a powerful cube the pilot gave him before he died.
Don’t get it twisted: there’s little in Tribes of Europa that reinvents the wheel. Just skim the surface of writer/director/creator Philip Koch‘s cataclysmic world, and you’ll find the DNA of everything from Children of Men to The Hunger Games to Apple TV+’s See and CW’s The 100 (the show this series most resembles, with its dirt-caked kid protagonists and forested settings). The Origines kids are two-dimensional warriors of virtue lost in a cynical world of BDSM-gear villains, kooky survivalist sidekicks, and rusted-out town squares. There’s plenty of Game of Thrones/Walking Dead mayhem to be found in its brutal action scenes, from beheadings to castrations to gladiatorial knife fights, paired with the kind of frenzied horniness you could only expect from those wild kids in Germany.
And yet, even in its relatively rushed first season, there’s plenty of potential to be found, mostly due to its handsome production design and a few smart supporting performances. The production looks suitably expensive for a European television show, with solid effects and intriguingly specific worldbuilding for each tribe. The Crows, of course, are the most fun, a sadomasochistic society that rides out the apocalypse like it’s an S&M leather fetish club (complete with raves). They’re led by androgynous Crow villainess Varvara (Melike Foroutan), who stalks her prey in giant platform heels and threatens her live-in paramours with a slashed throat if they climax before her. Foroutan makes a meal of her role, bringing big Rhoma Mitra in Doomsday energy to Varvara’s many shows of brutal strength and dominance.
On the other side of the fence, there’s Masucci’s Moses, a Han Solo-type more interested in selling Elja’s cube than helping him return it to the Atlantians. It’s a treat to watch Masucci work, swaggering into scenes with misplaced bluster and pulling the blank-slate Elja into one hairy situation after another. The central kids do their best with relatively thankless roles as the goody-goody leads surrounded by more interesting characters (Liv suffers most here, since her supporting cast is never more interesting than the captured Crow (Ana Ularu) who plays Loki to her Thor).
And yet, for all its surface-level schlock, Tribes of Europa gets most interesting when it uses its branched storylines to explore the nature of tribalism and assimilation — do you have to sacrifice your values and identity to fit into a new environment? “Empathy is your death,” Varvara warns Kiano, who’s forced to acclimate to the viciousness of Crow life. Liv, meanwhile, ostensibly gets to keep her sense of self with the Crimsons, even as they try to subsume her in other, more deceptive ways. Elja, meanwhile, learns what it’s like to be truly on his own, bereft of tribe, and the curious freedom that entails. Koch says he came up with the idea for the show after the Brexit vote, as a way to explore what happens when societies split away from each other.
While it comes courtesy of the producers of Dark, don’t expect Tribes of Europa to be as inscrutable as its head-scratching, but deeply intelligent, forebear. It’s skin-deep, straightforward, and schlocky. But if that’s your speed, there’s plenty to enjoy here — even if the season rushes to its cliffhanger conclusion far too soon. (One wonders whether there couldn’t have been budget for one or two more episodes to pace the events a bit better.) Still, it looks great, it’s nasty in all the right places, and scratches the itch for sumptuous-looking apocalyptic television – even as we ride out our own kind of apocalypse in COVID isolation.
Tribes of Europa unravels convoluted sci-fi mysteries in leather and impossible heels on Netflix February 19th.