Patrick Freyne: The EU dissolved, the continent collapsed into anarchy. Ah, paradise
Disagree with Tribes of Europa’s Crows? This is Project Fear talking. You just hate freedom
Tribes of Europa. Photograph: Gordon Timpen/Netflix
I would like to start my analysis of the new multilingual postapocalyptic sci-fi drama Tribes of Europa (Netflix) by talking about zips. The Origines, the first “tribe” we meet in the show, live an ecologically friendly life of subsistence in a glorified Ewok village. It’s 50 years after all the phones stop working and civilisation has crumbled (civilisation crumbles in 2029, which is pretty optimistic), yet many of this self-sufficient tribe are wearing outdoorsy anoraks with zips.
This is the hill I will die on: zips are pretty complex bits of machinery and would require a sophisticated, technologically savvy society to re-create. There wasn’t a medieval tradesman called “John to Zipper” who farmed and cultivated zips alongside the cooper, the smith and the fish wench. Zips were only invented after the Industrial Revolution, in 1891, by Whitcomb “Zippity” Judson. (He did invent zips, but I may have invented his nickname.)
So where do these hairless Ewok hippies get their zips? Do they whittle them? Do they trade offscreen with a tribe called the Zip People? Also, is there a type of sheep in the future that’s made of denim? And does this denim sheep own a sporting-goods store? This is all to say: where do the Origines get their duds?
The Crows are dressed all in black, have eye makeup on and seem to be huffing glue. Yes, we all knew them in school. The Crows want Elon Musk’s floating cuboid brain
The zips thing is my only real problem with Tribes of Europa, but I figured I should begin by getting it out of the way. The programme itself starts with our plucky heroes, a trio of Origine siblings, who are out in the forest hunting wolves when a weird aircraft crashes in the forest. They’ve never seen a plane before and call it a “spaceship”, much like you might do, you big culchie.
The Origines are a small, secluded tribe who live in a Europe riddled with violent factions, city states and tribes. Nearby in Berlin, for example, there lives a bunch of goth warrior baddies called the Crows. I assume that in the 50 years since civilisation crumbled the Crows have evolved from the bird of the same name. Look, I know more about zip production than evolution, but this sounds about right to me.
Before long the Origines find the wounded pilot of the shot-down aircraft. He is a technologically advanced “Atlantean” (which I hope turns out to be code for “Irish”), and the youngest of the siblings, Elja, finds a much-sought-after glowing, levitating black cube near his plane. We don’t know what this is, at this stage, but at a guess I’d say it’s Elon Musk’s brain or Microsoft Office or something.
Meanwhile, the Crows are dressed all in black, have eye makeup on and seem to be huffing glue. Yes, we all knew them in school. The Crows want Elon Musk’s floating cuboid brain, so they attack the Origine village, violently killing most of the villagers and separating the Origine siblings into three distinct and telegenic story strands.
Mulleted older sibling Kiano is taken in a trudging convoy to Berlin. If he’s thinking “Einfach klasse! I’m going to live in a rent-controlled apartment while DJing three nights a week for an experimental hardcore krunk club!” then he’s in for a shock. Because before he can say “I’m moving to Kreuzberg to work on my video art and taxidermy!” the head Crow castrates, then murders, his uncle. Awkward!
Sadly, the techno clubs of the future feature slaves fighting to the death and S&M goths writhing so sexily I fear they have worms
The backdrop of Tribes of Europa is that technology has failed, the EU has been dissolved and the whole continent has collapsed into anarchy, factionalism and violence. Or possibly, dropping the liberal Irish Times act for a moment, it has collapsed into a paradise of free-trading autonomous nations. Take the Crows: by deregulating their labour laws their workers have become far more productive, their entrepreneurs have flourished and their debauched decadent techno clubs are booming (if a bit sticky).
And if you counter that their factories produce terrifying narcotics, that the workers are sick and dying slaves, and that their techno music is crap, let me suggest to you that this is Project Fear talking and that you just hate freedom.
Speaking of which, Kiano’s crossbow-wielding sister, Liv, joins up with the Crimson Republic, a militarised remnant of the European Union who are trying to bring order back to Europa at the barrel of a gun. Classic EU. Liv helps them capture a Crow and then tries to convince that Crow to take her to Berlin, where, with luck, they’ll end up working on a feminist zine together before doing some stencil graffiti then hitting the techno clubs. (Sadly, the techno clubs of the future feature slaves fighting to the death and S&M goths writhing so sexily I fear they have worms.)
While this is happening, Elja ends up joining up with Moses, a van-driving scavenger of old technology. There isn’t a futuristic set that Moses, played by the excellent Oliver Masucci, doesn’t chomp to splinters with his huge, moustachio-topped gnashers. So this Steptoe and Son-style relationship is particularly good fun. They rope in allies to help unravel the secrets of the black cube/Elon Musk’s brain.
All that’s established in the first few episodes is that something terrifying is coming from the east. Is this a reference to Paschal Donohoe? Possibly. Though I suspect, because this is largely set in Germany, they probably don’t mean the east of Ireland.
Tribes of Europa is ominously, gruesomely gripping. The world-building is great. Its tropes are familiar, but I’m enjoying it a lot. There’s a hungry game-playing heroine with a medieval weapon, a bunch of sexy warrior goths that no one likes, a precious artefact sought after by all, some ancient evil coming from a very specific geographic coordinate and lots and lots of zips. I’m sorry. I just can’t stop wondering about the zips. Maybe the glowing floaty box makes zips.
For a look at the last time Europe fell into anarchy, Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley (Tuesday, BBC One) uses shocking archive footage and movingly re-created witness testimony to explain how the “blitz spirit” was a political construct. In fact, people chafed at the war propaganda from the start, with Londoners divided along class lines, the destitute neglected by the state and everyone exhausted and terrified by the relentless fire-bombing.
And, even then, there were denialists who thought war preparation was a big-governmental waste of money and there were class warriors who demonised the bombed poor. Ultimately, Worsley’s film is a moving testament to the voluntary groups, grassroots organisations and individuals that filled the gaps where government was failing. And it’s also a plea to ignore those who want to reduce the messy realities of history to banalities for increasingly stupid reasons.