Netflix’s Barbarians Season 1 review: German saga filled with sex and spears should be your next binge

Like many shows or films of its ilk (which some derisively dub swords-and-sandals flicks), Barbarians is filled with sex, spears and bloody sacrifices.

Deven Kanal November 02, 2020 10:35:01 IST
Netflix’s Barbarians Season 1 review: German saga filled with sex and spears should be your next binge

If you love history, chances are that you’re fascinated with all things Rome. 

For good reason. The story of how a tiny village rose to become a great power of the ancient world and then slowly fell apart, is a fascinating and instructive tale. 

From the 1959 classic Ben Hur to BBC’s I Claudius to HBO’s series of the same name, Rome has been providing rich fodder for pop culture fans for decades.

But the more one reads about Rome – its conquest of land and peoples, its corruption and criminality – the more one begins to develop some antipathy, or at least a deep ambivalence. 

Thus admiration becomes reserved for the handful of individuals over the centuries who dared rally their compatriots and stood up to the might of Rome: From the escaped gladiator Spartacus to the brilliant Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca and the brave Celtic queen Boudica.

Netflixs Barbarians Season 1 review German saga filled with sex and spears should be your next binge

This is one such story. The true story of Arminius, hero of Germania and traitor to Rome, who dealt the Empire one of its greatest defeats in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 CE) and changed the course of history by halting its expansion across Europe.

Barbarians has three main POV characters: Arminius, the Germanic noblewoman Thusnelda and swordsman and local shit-disturber Folkwin Wolfspeer.

Arminius, the son of Cherusci tribe chief Segimer, given to Rome (along with his brother Flavius) as a hostage to secure peace, is the main character (essayed by Austrian theatre and TV actor Laurence Rupp).

The show kicks off with Arminius’ return to Germania – as a soldier of great renown, the commander of a German auxiliary force within the Roman Army and a Roman citizen – to aid local governor and his ‘adopted father’ Publius Quinctilius Varus quell the natives.

This, even as his childhood friends Thusnelda and Wolfspeer, have grown up and fallen in love (though they have to keep things secret because of Wolfspeer’s lowly status).

When the arrogant local Romans turn up at the village, demand tribute they simply can’t pay, disrespect their local reik (chief) and cause irreparable damage to Thusnelda’s little brother, the lovers vow vengeance.

Their madcap plan? Stealing the Roman legion’s standard, thus dealing a blow to Rome’s pride and honour.

As they say, things escalate rather quickly. Thusnelda’s father Segestes, with one eye on ascending to the position of reik, sells out Wolfspeer in hopes of sucking up to the Romans.

Netflixs Barbarians Season 1 review German saga filled with sex and spears should be your next binge

Varus orders Arminius to bring him the head of Wolfspeer, who goes on the run. The game is on.

The little joy Arminius feels at being reunited with his buddies turns to ash as he realises the level of disdain and distrust his former people have for him and Rome’s grand plans for the region and his own role as a pawn of the Empire.

While Arminius’ inner torment, whether to stay loyal to Varus and Rome, who helped him find a place in the world, or fall in with his fellow ‘countrymen’ to fend off their would-be-conquerors that propels the narrative, it is Thusnelda that is the show’s most intriguing character.

Thusnelda, played by German actor Jeanne Goursaud with a grim determination and fiery disposition, yearns to break free of her father, who wants to sell her for five horses and to secure a powerful alliance (that sounds familiar) and bristles against the shackles put on her simply due to her gender.

Indeed, it is Thusnelda who comes up with the plans to humiliate the Romans, Thusnelda who embraces a canny political marriage in defiance of her father and at the crucial moment, Thusnelda who keeps the tribes together and gives Arminius a fighting chance against the Roman legions.

Rounding out the triumvirate is Wolfspeer (a truly, gloriously ridiculous name) played by 29-year-old German actor David Schütter. 

Schütter’s Wolfspeer, who was invented out of whole cloth for the show, with his fashion model good looks, puts one in mind of Vikings’ Ragnar Lothbrok.

With historical sources being a bit sketchy about when Arminius began thinking of betraying Rome (from the very beginning of his time as a hostage, some speculate), Wolfspeer exists as just one giant plot device: to give Arminius a reason to turn his back on Rome and to provide plot tension when Arminius and Thusnelda hook up.

With just six episodes in the first season, Schütter, unfortunately, gets the short end of the stick. Hopefully, he’ll be able to get a meatier role come season two.

Like many shows or films of its ilk (which some derisively dub swords-and-sandals flicks), Barbarians is filled with sex, spears and bloody sacrifices. 

But rather than go for a sensory overload à la Spartacus, Barbarians wisely takes the Game of Thrones route by choosing character development over big, stylised clashes.

The show also takes plenty of liberties with history and plays around with its timeline: Arminius was certainly not ‘adopted’ by the Roman governor, the political match between Arminius and Thusnelda took place a few years after the events of the series and the climactic battle occurred over a period of four days rather than just a few hours.

But these are minor nit-picks that only history buffs would know about (or even care).

Perhaps the biggest downside of watching shows or movies about Rome or the ancient world is listening to The Queen’s Latin: characters who are certainly not British affecting British accents. It was thus a real treat for the ears to hear the actors – most of them from Germany – on the show speaking only German and Latin. It adds authenticity and helps keep the willing suspension of disbelief.

While Barbarians does not break any new ground, its decent production values, top-notch acting and compelling characters (for the most part) makes it well worth your next binge. 

For the love of god, get over the 1-inch-barrier of subtitles and watch this show in its native language.

Now, if only it had dragons.

(All images from Twitter)

Barbarians is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —

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