The past catches up with a former hacker as Europe loses power in this international drama series, based on a best-selling novel.
Kylie Walker

17 Jun 2022 - 2:00 PM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2022 - 9:41 AM

At first, it seems like there’s an issue at a single German power station. But soon, in a disastrous chain reaction, the entire European power grid is down – and for former hacker Pierre Manzano, the past is about reach a hand into the present and jerk him out of his quiet life in Italy.

In Germany, with her boss stranded overseas, Frauke Michelsen finds herself heading the country’s crisis response team – but she’s got more than food shortages and a lack of fuel to keep emergency generators going at hospitals to worry about. Her twin daughters are missing.

Based on the best-selling novel by Marc Elsberg, German-language drama Blackout – Tomorrow Is Too Late is a deftly woven thriller that keeps us guessing as the hours and days tick by.

While a few hours without power can be annoying, day after day without power has devastating consequences. The series, like Elsberg’s book, shows just how wide-ranging the consequences can be: the people hanging, upside down, a deadly distance above the ground after a rollercoaster stops mid-ride; dairy cows in pain from swollen udders because the machines that normally do the milking can’t be used; the pointless queues at service stations where bowsers need electricity; the desperate situation for food and water.

German actor Moritz Bleibtreu (who has a long film and TV CV, including Speed Racer, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Run Lola Run, Female Agents - currently streaming at SBS On Demandand Lammbock, and is fluent in four languages, one of them Italian) is perfectly cast as the likable but wary Manzano. There’s a reason he’s wary – nearly 20 years ago, during the G8 summit in Genoa, he and a group of friends were beaten by police.

When the lights go out in Italy, he thinks he knows what’s going on – someone hacking into the smart metre system used to monitor household power. He tries to tell the police, and when they won’t listen, the power company. But his wariness proves justified as he quickly becomes a suspect.  

For Michelsen (Marie Leuenberger, The Divine Order - streaming at SBS On Demand, Caged Birds), there’s more than the power crisis to deal with. There’s political manouvering gettting in the way of her efforts to deal with the crisis and find her daughters – and while the viewers know where they are, we’re kept guessing about the motives of the man who befriends them when their train breaks down.

Shooting a film about a blackout had its challenges for the actors – Bleibtreu has talked of how physically and mentally challenging it was at times – and for the directors. There are some scenes in the series where things are so dark, it’s hard to see much at all; not in a way that interferes with the story, quite the opposite. It’s a reminder of just how much we rely on light. “We really wanted the audience to feel the blackout. … You can’t imagine, especially if you live in a city, there being no light, because you always have light. It was quite hard to shoot, especially wide shots, because we had to ask hundreds of families to switch off their lights for two hours,” co-director Oliver Rihs told Drama Quarterly.  

Blackout – Tomorrow Is Too Late (not to be confused with Blackout, a 10-part Belgian drama series that sees the country plunged into darkness and the Prime minister’s daughter kidnapped, also streaming at SBS On Demand) comes from W&B Television, the production company behind the crime series Pagan Peak, sci-fi thriller series Dark and the film The Lives of Others.

W&B managing director Max Wiedemann has said that while Blackout – Tomorrow Is Too Late is a gripping thriller, “it is also a show about hope: if people come together and help each other, the worst can be overcome”.

The series also stars Claudio Caiolo (fun fact – as well as a long CV as an actor, he’s also a former acrobat) as Manzano’s neighbour Carlo Bandini; Heiner Lauterbach (Traumfabrik - now streaming at SBS On DemandTannbach, Eurocops) as Chief Inspector Jurgen Hartland; Hannah Hoekstra (Arthur & Claire, You Are Wanted) as journalist Lauren Shannon; Barry Atsma (Bad Banks, The Split) as Michelsen’s ex, Axel Kjaer; Stephan Kampwirth (Dark, Who Am I) as bureaucrat with an agenda Viet Rhees; Herbert Knaup (Run Lola Run, The Lives of Others) as his boss, government minister Reinhard Severin; Carlos Leal (The Team, Father Stu) as Europol head of counterterrorism Francois Bollard; and Jessica Schwarz (Freddy/Eddy, streaming now at SBS On DemandBiohackers, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) as Helena Voss, a face from Manzano’s past.

While the series races towards one big question – can they get the power back on? – it gently raises others too. How far would people go to get what they need? How much of a role does political manoeuvring play in decision making, and delays?

Above all though, this ambitious thriller takes a crackingly good story (there's a reason the book was translated into 15 languages, with more than 1.7 million copies sold) and turns it into gripping television. Michelsen, Manzano and the rest are in a race against time (and politicing, misunderstandings and flying bullets), but there’s a glimmer of hope. Can working together win the day and return the light?

Six-part series Blackout: Tomorrow is Too Late is streaming now at SBS On Demand. 

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