Der Pass Review

Der Pass (otherwise known as Pagan Peak) is an absorbing thriller, in the mould of shows like The Bridge. By not straying too far from that immensely popular premise, Der Pass offers a border-blurring exercise in tension that feels familiar but has enough unique elements to make it worth investing in.

Synopsis: When a gruesomely staged, dead body is found in a mountain pass in the Alps near the German-Austrian border,
two detectives from either side are brought in to investigate.
Not only are they from two different countries, they are worlds apart in their careers…German detective Ellie (Julia Jentsch) embraces the case as the first real challenge of her profession, while her Austrian counterpart Gedeon (Nicholas Ofczarek) is jaded and seems to have lost any ambition. They soon discover more crime scenes with symbolically posed victims, which appear reminiscent of pagan
rituals. Are they all part of a much bigger, sinister plan?

Der Pass is an 8-episode detective drama with a huge emphasis on mood and tone, but somehow also gets the pacing right. It’s initial introduction of a number of characters at first feels a little disarming, especially as I always experience a short period of adjustment when reading subtitles and getting an understanding of the tone of the language. However, it uses them skilfully, switching the action from character to character so it feels like the story is never standing still, but just being seen from a slightly different perspective until it narrows to its most important players.

The teaming of two detectives who have very different methods is nothing new, especially in these dramas where the difficulty of investigating a murder is complicated by the body being across borders – in this case, the German and Austrian border. Gedeon Winter (Nicholas Ofczarek) takes up the mantle of grizzled, haunted detective who is seen drugging his sugar cubes (yes, really) to get through the day. Winter’s dark past is always lapping at his heels and often threatens the investigations. In contrast, Ellie Stocker (Julia Jentsch) is confident and focused on getting the right result, especially as the case marks her first time in control of an investigation. So far, so familiar but both leads have enough charm that it feels like welcome familiarity, rather than a rehash. Both are given ample room to develop as the case increasingly pulls at personal threads for the pair.

While the political edge between the countries of the detectives is not as pronounced as in other dramas of the same kind, there is still tension developed here in terms of a changing world and the crossing of borders. An early scene features the discovery of refugee bodies in an abandoned lorry – an intrusion of the real-world on a show that spends a great deal of time concerned with the implications of traditional myths. The search at first for a Pagan ritual murderer soon gives way to more specific myths like Krampus and then into something entirely different, but each representation is built as plausibly as possible so that no element feels designed to swerve or double-cross the viewer. In fact, Der Pass reveals its perpetrator fairly early on meaning that the show dedicates time to exploring both the police and murderer’s methods.

Der Pass really wrings every ounce of tension and awe from its alpine location, regularly using the snow-covered surroundings and looming trees to ominous effect. This helps hugely in setting the moody tone for the drama – people are framed as small within the vast, blindingly white landscape which adds a lot to the scale of the production too. It is picturesque but stark and sweeping shots above really emphasise how vast the location is. The extremes of light and dark allow for some very creepy imagery and the use of shadow to reveal as much as it conceals works incredibly well.

A late-stage time-jump appears superfluous at first, but soon evolves to show the wider impact of the case on the detectives, other crimes, victims and the region everything has taken place in. This also allows for an abrupt escalation of tension and some incredibly, chilling, downbeat moments that feels in keeping with the overall direction of the show.

With its snowy settings and myth-exploring, Der Pass is the ideal drama for settling down with when the nights are getting colder and darker. At only 8 episodes, it does incredibly well to create such a depth of mood while also moving through its narrative beats at a perfect pace. Anyone who enjoys a methodical serial killer/detective story will undoubtedly get a lot from Der Pass.

Der Pass arrives on DVD and digital tomorrow (September 23rd) following its successful showing on Sky Atlantic through Acorn Media. Click here for more details.

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