Netflix’s Barbarians: cringe or binge?

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The Netflix logo in red capital letters on a black background. Wikipedia Commons

This series might leave you a bit Rome-sick

Released as a Netflix Original on October 23, 2020, Barbarians was hyped by a dramatic trailer that received nearly 1.5 million views thus far. It is based on the historical battle of Tuetoburg Forest of 9 CE where three Roman legions were obliterated.

But the prevailing question is – cringe or binge? Is the show worth a watch?

While I won’t be offering many spoilers beyond the historical facts, this show does, like many other shows in their attempt to capture history, go beyond the facts to fill in the gaps of our imaginations. However, many have praised this show for adhering to the facts in a way that many historical shows fail to do. Although certain details have been added, they are mostly very minor tweaks or additions that do not drastically mislead the viewer from history.

Barbarians is not in English like The Last Kingdom or Vikings. In the show, the Romans actually speak Classical Latin. Furthermore, during certain scenes the Latin becomes more or less formal depending on the context, which is a difficult thing for the actors to have achieved.

While some staunch historians might say, “well, didn’t the Roman soldiers speak Vulgar Latin” (also called Common Latin)? This would be the case later, but in 9 CE and because the majority of Romans we hear speaking in the show are of a higher status, Classical Latin makes more sense and some linguistics teachers have actually commented on this accurate use of language. Here’s a little fun fact: modern Italian and the other Romance languages of Europe derive from Vulgar Latin.

Still discussing the use of historical language, I would be more critical of the Germanic peoples who appeared to be speaking modern German – which, if this is the case, it is not historically accurate because the German language, like all languages, has changed over time. However, there has been much less commentary on this aspect of the show’s language use.

The aesthetic is great but could be better. One thing to note is that the Roman armour used is actually historically accurate, which is not as common in these kinds of shows as it should be.

In my opinion the shaman is underwhelming. One thing to ask is, what was the director’s goal in portraying the shaman the way she was?

Personally, I think what makes a shaman the most compelling is when their image is both alluring and repulsive. When a shaman is plainly repulsive without the alluring trait,   we just want to shut off the show or skip the scene. We are not compelled to watch, whereas, when a shaman in the Germanic context communes with their Gods and is both alluring and repulsive they acquire that image of holiness where they are separate from the people around them. It just makes the atmosphere of the show that much more believable and enriching. Also, it can be a great icon for people to recognize the show.

While Barbarians definitely mentions religion, in the show it is more a tool for power rather than of any real consideration which I also thought was a disappointment. I love heroes blessed by gods or when there are spiritual encounters within the show that hint that the Gods are watching. Here, the show missed a big opportunity.

I think I know why the director omitted these things and kept the show a bit more simple. By getting the armour and language right, I think having Germanic gods without Roman gods would make the show less objective, which is often the aim of a historian. Also, by having many different points of interest other than the main characters and immediate storyline it makes the show more complex, which is often divergent from German aesthetic trends. If you know anything about Germans, they love functionality and simplicity.

A majority of the scenes are shot in the forest and attention to the scenery is often limited which is further why I think the director was going for simplicity and what was seen as necessary was kept, while anything else was cut. This rigid simplicity however gets complaints as people have said that the script is lacking in some instances, and I tend to agree with this.

While I binged Barbarians, I think the cringe moments may even contribute to why someone should binge.

For instance – spoiler alert – when Arminius is fighting in the final battle he does not take off his Roman armour but rather has a tiny strip of laughable war paint over one eye. Somehow all of the Germanic tribespeople know that this guy is on the Germanic side. In the chaos of war, I am sure that his Roman armour would have got him killed. The scene is almost comic.

Final spoiler: when Thusnelda and Folkwin Wolfspeer steal the Roman eagle standard and the whole village dances around it almost like they are worshipping it in celebration there was a solid cringe. Just watch the show so you can let me know what you think.

I think six episodes of 45 to 50 minutes is absolutely binge material and while the show made me cringe at points, it is absolutely worth the watch. If not for the history, the action and intensity along with Arminius’ internal conflict of loyalties makes the show genuine good fun.

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