Disclaimer: This article freely discusses all elements of ‘1899’ including spoilers.
Creative partners Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar doubtlessly work in a risky way when they plan their story in its entirety despite the constant threat of cancellation with streaming platforms. Their most recent creation, the beautifully crafted multilingual mystery 1899, follows a similar path as their previous mind-bending sci-fi mystery Dark (2017-2020), as it forces viewers to be attentive and patient in a world shrouded in bewilderment and puzzles. Yet, despite its popularity, 1899 recently joined the slate of series unjustly cancelled by Netflix after only one season. Since it was a story intended to be told in three seasons following a three-act structure, when the first season ends, it does not feel like the end but rather the beginning of something bigger.
Set in 1899, the series follows a group of passengers from diverse backgrounds emigrating from Europe to New York City in search of new opportunities. From mysterious bugs and secret shafts to synchronised tea drinking and visible glitches, 1899 presents a historical drama that immediately feels off. Initially united in optimism about the future, the passengers’ journey takes an unexpected turn when they encounter another steamship that has been missing for months. Whilst the dream turns nightmarish, characters also struggle with clashes of cultural prejudices, class conflicts, issues with mental health and sexuality, and zealotry.
The biggest twist of 1899, however, is the revelation that the passengers are in a simulation, with the possibility of multiple layers of simulations. As viewers follow the breadcrumb trail of clues and tumble deeper down the rabbit hole, it becomes evident that the beauty lies less in the jarring final reveal and more in trying to untangle the details leading up to it.
The first seed for 1899 arose when the creators came across a photograph of a bloody man accessorised with a hammer and a peculiar facial expression, standing on top of what looked like an old boat — briefly referenced when a barefoot Maura (Emily Beecham) is standing in a hallway of the ship with a hammer in her hand. As nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments began to rise in Europe following the 2015 European refugee crisis and Brexit, 1899 evolved into a counterpoint, a celebration of collaborations beyond borders.
Keen to showcase a linguistic diversity mirroring the situation, 1899 features Cantonese, Danish, English, French, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish. Other languages are also heard in the background, such as Swedish. Was the multiple languages a glitch in the simulation’s code? Was it programmed to keep individuals from working together effectively against a greater threat? Regardless of the reason, the diversity carries significance beyond plot points. Given the creators’ fondness for details, few — if any — things in 1899 are purely accidental. Thus, since language undoubtedly plays a vital part, the way characters express themselves must carry meaning as well.
While some of 1899’s characters exclusively speak in their native language, others are, to various extents, multilingual. Still, the language barrier rarely keeps characters from communicating, something some viewers found baffling as it resulted in moments where a handful of characters sometimes managed to understand the general meaning of what was said in a different language. Be that as it may, there is still no single way of communication as it constantly changes from characters understanding each other fully to partially to not at all.
While Friese and Odar’s inspiration is noticeable in the portrayal of people from various nationalities seeking a better life, it is also visible in how the story unravels. At first, characters are suspicious of each other, mostly staying within their social status and nationality, before eventually understanding that they are stronger when joining forces. There are also displays of mob mentality and examples of scapegoating, something immigrants, amongst others, are often exposed to. Following in the footsteps of the initial inspiration, the fact that the ship is named Kerberos might be a possible reference to the multi-headed dog in Greek mythology that guards the gates of the underworld. Since 1899 is essentially about crossing borders — and whether one has the right to do so — it is a detail that fits perfectly within the explored theme.
1899’s linguistic diversity works on multiple levels, both within the mystery itself, to differentiate characters, and for the viewers, as multilingual viewers can decipher details within the spoken languages themselves. These hints include dialects as well as anachronisms found in the use of slang and more modernised words. For instance, Maura’s repeated use of the modern term “mental hospital” when “lunatic asylum” or “insane asylum” is more appropriate to that time period. Another example is when Maura, who is British, uses the word “mad” to imply anger, a meaning much more common in American English as British English frequently use “mad” to refer to crazy. Other unusual expressions include “OK” in its more modern meaning and “shitshow,” whose earliest recorded use is in the 1970s. All these details point in one direction: Characters speak anachronistically because, in truth, they are from the future.
Throughout the series, several immediate connections occur between certain characters that are otherwise presented as strangers. These connections — for instance, Olek (Maciej Musiał)/Ling Yi (Isabella Wei), Eyk (Andreas Pietschmann)/Maura, Jérôme (Yann Gael)/Clémence (Mathilde Ollivier), and Ángel (Miguel Bernardeau)/Krester (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen) — seem to appear subconsciously and accentuate the idea that even though the mind can forget, the body cannot. Besides bodily remembrance, these connections are also revealed verbally.
This is evident in the use of specific pronouns to convey familiarity, which is called the T-V distinction. The following languages are intricate and complex in their lingual distinctions, but for this article it is enough to boil it down to the following (informal option first if not stated otherwise): French has tu and vous, German has du and Sie, Spanish has tú and usted, and Polish has the informal ty, the masculine formal pan, and the feminine formal pani. The general rule is that the formal option of “you” is reserved for less personal encounters, while the informal option is more personal. Which option one chooses to use depends on various factors, such as age and context, and can convey varying levels of courtesy, familiarity, or even insult toward the addressee.
Since the French language to this day still upholds a relatively rigid T-V distinction, that should imply that a naturally strict separation of the two options would also appear within the world of 1899. Yet, this is not the case. Even though Clémence is a first-class passenger from a wealthy family, her way of speaking rarely aligns with the setting or her social status. While she often uses tu regardless of familiarity, her way of addressing Jérôme as such is the act that truly reveals significant meaning. Primarily, it might emphasise that they share history. Deciding to use tu instead of vous can convey a sign of intimacy as it highlights a genuine evolution within a relationship — they are already past the formal stage.
Another first-class passenger following Clémence’s example is Ángel, who addresses the Danish third-class passenger Krester with the Spanish informal tú. The reason behind it could be to convey a power imbalance, as the wealthy Ángel is clearly used to having things his way and does not shy away from speaking his mind. However, the use of tú can also be a subtle way of acknowledging the mutual attraction he feels toward Krester, as well as the compassion he feels for Krester as he struggles with his sexuality.
Other more easily recognisable examples are found with the Polish stoker Olek. When he addresses Eyk, he uses Sie because Eyk is the captain and Olek’s superior. In comparison, during Olek’s first encounter with Jérôme, he initially addresses him formally before changing to the informal pronoun once he realises that Jérôme is a stowaway and not a person of authority. Likewise, Jérôme addresses Olek with tu. There is a mutual sense of equality between them. Furthermore, even though Olek and Ling Yi are of similar age, she is undoubtedly a first-class passenger and would therefore have been addressed by Olek as pani or even panienka. Since Olek has demonstrated comprehension of the differences between formal and informal, his active choice with Ling Yi speaks louder simply because he knows the differences and how to use them. Thus, it is yet another example of potential history between characters and a hint toward 1899 not being as it seems.
A vital part of national identity, language is also used as a tool for certain characters to pretend to be what they are not, such as Ling Yi and Yuk Je (Gabby Wong) trying to pass as Japanese even though they are Chinese or Ramiro (José Pimentão) trying to pass as Spanish even though he is Portuguese. However, regardless of how convincingly one might keep up appearances, sometimes the truth seeps through the cracks. This is evident when Ramiro, in moments of fear, slips into his native Portuguese before changing back to Spanish.
Moreover, even though the language barrier is one of the biggest challenges immigrants face, barriers are not unbreakable and people are often adept at communicating beyond words. If one decides to be attentive, one can often catch up on various signals — body language, facial expressions, range and tone, and nuances in delivery — and place that information within context to understand others. Though they might not always verbally understand, the characters in 1899 focus less on what and more on how something is said.
An example is a moment between Anker (Alexandre Willaume) and Ramiro in the sixth episode when Anker reveals that he never wanted to be a priest and does not even believe in God. Ramiro takes Anker’s hands in his, looks him in the eyes, and tells him, “All your sins will be forgiven.” Ramiro understood from the despair on Anker’s face that what he talked about was painful. Ramiro responded in a way he thought was appropriate, both in the moment and in his role as a “priest,” and Anker took from Ramiro’s reply what he needed to feel comforted. These exchanges, often resembling confessionals, are freeing as the lack of verbal understanding encourages passengers to confess their fears and secrets out loud, fully comforted by the fact that their distress or shame will be kept safe.
Just as diversity in front of and behind the camera is necessary, it is also important with linguistic diversity. Enthusiastically multilingual, 1899 features actors speaking their native languages, a decision that heightens the series monumentally compared to if it would have been exclusively in English. The original undubbed version allows viewers to hear the actors’ intonations and tones along with the specific characteristics and melodies of each language. Something special happens when actors are allowed to perform in their first language. No matter how well one masters another language, the mother tongue carries an authenticity and honesty that is impossible to recreate as effortlessly when translated. Above all else, the use of numerous languages creates a beautiful and interesting soundscape.
However, these nuances disappear in the dubbed versions. Compared to Dark, which unfolds in a small German town where everyone speaks the same language, 1899 features many languages to reflect its characters’ diverse backgrounds. Thus, dubbing removes a fundamental part of the story. It does not solely rob viewers of the beauty of linguistic diversity, it also affects the script as characters expressing that they do not understand each other whilst all speaking the same language would be absurd. Often, mainstream films and series rely too heavily on English as the exclusively spoken language, regardless if it makes sense. Rarely do viewers have the opportunity to hear multiple languages in not only a big production but in the same project. If nothing else, 1899 proves that there is an interest in work featuring a variety of languages regardless of viewers’ prior knowledge of any of them.
Undeniably their most ambitious production to date, 1899 is an intriguing story about the complexities of memory, reality and perceptions of it, and the horror of grief and loss. From cheerfully oblivious first-class passengers to the sparse conditions of third-class passengers below deck to the rough conditions for workers in the fire room shovelling coal, 1899 moves from all parts of the ship to emphasise differences — yet underscores how thin they are when borders begin to break. Because at the end of the day, they are all in the same boat. Besides featuring some of the most beautiful and memorable imagery of 2022, particularly stunning visuals of characters climbing into their memories, 1899 is a genuinely clever, enthralling, and touching story that would have been worth following to its final destination.