Having been impressed by Netflix’s Outlaw King in 2018, which was a surprisingly realistic account of Robert the Bruce’s rise to power, I decided to indulge in the streaming service’s latest historical offering. I was concerned as always that modern morality would be inserted into the historic narrative, or that the events had been twisted so much that it would not resemble the original source material. However, I was pleasantly surprised, and the series definitely deserves the praise that has been heaped on it and the expansive budget that was required to make it.

The show is a German production, with all characters speaking in either German or Latin. The English dub is mostly acceptable, although there is at times an obvious mismatch between the movement of the characters’ mouths and their voices when their faces are close to the screen. If anything, though, this is just a small annoyance in a production which flows very well over six episodes that are all roughly 40 minutes long. The opening episode takes you deep into the Germanic side of the plot, and although this helps to build the appeal of the main characters, it fails to identify clearly how each of the Germans are related to each other, which may cause a bit of confusion for first time viewers.

As the first episode progresses, the Roman side of the plot is gradually introduced and a series of flashbacks in episode two help to cement the two sides of the story. It is from this point on that you have a clear and gripping narrative where your loyalties as a viewer can easily sway from the native Germans to their Latin occupiers. In between these two loyalties is the male lead—Arminius, played by Laurence Rupp—whose Germanic birth and Roman career force him to make difficult and at times ruthless decisions. The actor is the perfect choice for the role, as he dominates the scenes he is present in, yet at the same time has an understated and convincing style which never feels overbearing.

The female lead, Thusnelda, played by Jeanne Goursaud, is another example of good casting, and although some of her action scenes verge on the unbelievable, she manages to carry the plot effectively from beginning to end. In many ways, she dominates the first three episodes, and although this may be historically inaccurate (her noble father was actually more prominent), her gritty femininity is a good counterweight to Arminius’ aristocratic male zeal.

Probably one of the most interesting aspects of the show is its portrayal of paganism, on both the Latin and Germanic side. It features heavily throughout, and the idea of having a predetermined “role” or “destiny” begins to have a consequential effect on Thusnelda’s mind as her troubles begin to mount. The religious loyalties of the characters are central to how they view their identity, and this brings conflict when Arminius crosses his own mental Rubicon and returns to his family’s lands. At times, the rituals are overboard and induce an element of cringe, but on the other hand, it does effectively demonstrate the devotion of the characters to their faith.

In many ways, Barbarians is probably not the best title for the series, as that name has in recent years lost favour with historians when discussing the tribes who lived east of the Rhine and north of the Danube, and contradicts the complex existence of the Germanic peoples that are featured. One thing that did appeal to me was the dark atmosphere and feeling of foreboding which surrounds every scene in the series, and it strongly reminded me of King Arthur (Clive Owen, 2004) or Joan D’Arc (Milla Jovovitch, 1999). On top of that, the presence of struggle and pragmatic survival is portrayed accurately for the time period, and viewers are left in no doubt as to how the ancient world really played out.

The atmosphere of each episode is of course partly the result of the soundtrack, and although it is not particularly original or gripping, it does lend itself well to the genre. This is especially true in regards to the epic Battle of Teutoberg Forest, which was one of Rome’s greatest embarrassments, and serves as the climax to the show. Again, the music resembles King Arthur, yet unlike that film, it uses electronic as well as classical instruments, which gives it a more varied sound.

Overall, the series is worthy of your time and is proof that great cinematography and creative writing still exists in the German television industry.