British author William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies casts a very long shadow.
The book itself is an absolute masterpiece, a physical and philosophical adventure that puts a group of schoolboys on a desert island and tracks how quickly and horrifyingly they revert to abject savagery with no adults around. A classroom staple (which is funny when you think about it), it has spawned at least four film adaptations, and inspired countless homages in everything from The Simpsons to the recent sci-fi drama Voyagers. To that teetering pile we can now add the new eight-part German drama Wild Republic, which adds some interesting new modifications to Golding’s original model.
Berliners breaking bad
Our ensemble here is not a plane full of coddled private school kids but a bunch of juvenile delinquents on a last chance, eight-week wilderness rehabilitation course in the rugged German Alps.
Character and backstory are doled out in small but intriguing increments: there’s Kim (Emma Drogunova), who escaped the world of human trafficking by testifying against her criminal boyfriend; volatile Can (Aaron Altaras), always spoiling for a fight; creepy Justin (Béla Gabor Lenz), who has the affect of a budding Hannibal Lecter; addict Jessica (Camille Dombrowsky); anti-capitalist activist Ron (Merlin Rose), and more.
It’s a volatile mix of personalities and the odds of things going pear-shaped are extremely high – and that’s exactly what happens when one of the program staff members turns up dead.
Knowing that regardless of who did the deed they’re all bound for jail once the cops show up, our unwilling tribe head deeper into the mountains, taking their social worker, Rebecca (Verena Altenberger), with them. In pursuit is idealistic program director Lars Sellien (Franz Hartwig), who not only needs to prove that his scheme is a better alternative than feeding young offenders into the prison system, but has a personal stake as well: Rebecca is his girlfriend, and she’s just announced that she’s pregnant.
That’s a set-up for a pretty good thriller, but Wild Republic has loftier thematic ambitions, with our mixed bag of miscreants holing up in a remote cave system and forced to figure out how – and even if – they can live together. Anarchist Ron, who actually hails from a wealthy, politically connected family, has some idealistic notions about how a utopian collective could function, but the raw material at hand is a collection of criminals, with some of them – Can and Justin in particular – not exactly team players. How do you build a society comprised of members who are, by definition, markedly antisocial?
It’s a survival morality play
Wild Republic adroitly balances the physical survival drama of its scenario with its more cerebral concerns, and in doing so joins a long tradition of similar philosophical adventure yarns. As mentioned, Lord of the Flies is our obvious touchstone here, but there’s also John Boorman’s harrowing Deliverance (and Hell in the Pacific, come to think of it), Lee Tamahori’s bear-baiting The Edge, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, J.C. Chandor’s sublime All is Lost, a huge chunk of Jack London’s canon… heck, the ur-example must be Moby Dick, although an argument can surely be made for Joseph Conrad’s literary oeuvre.
What these works have in common is a fundamental understanding that mere survival against the odds is not the most interesting element in play. Rather, it’s how we survive, the choices we make, the ethical compromises. It’s about the rules we are comfortable breaking and the ones we feel driven to cleave to, no matter the physical cost.
In the end, it’s about how far you’re willing to go, and at what cost? Wild Republic raises all these issues and more, and still finds time for the odd ravening wolf to deliver more immediate thrills. What more could you ask for in a survival drama?
Wild Republic is streaming now at SBS On Demand.