What's it about?
Setting: Military Cold War Europe
"After World War II, Germany was split into two countries, East and West. The citizens of the two nations lived as enemies. In 1967 humanity encountered an alien life form on the moon, the BETA [Beings of the Extra Terrestrial origin which is Adversary of human race], and war broke out. Six years later, the BETA landed in Kashgar, in Central Asia. In the midst of the Cold War, humanity was thrust into a fight for its very survival. And ten years later, the war's front lines were in the German Democratic Republic, East Germany. The BETA's advance into Europe put East Germany in a desperate position, and the Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, put a surveillance system in place throughout the country to maintain their fighting forces. Fear of the state caused the people to monitor one another. The result was a mad society in which parents blew the whistle on their children, children on their parents, husband on wife and wife on husband. We believed in no god, and had no one else to believe in. Our only choices were to die on the battlefield, to die in the purges, or to live like machines."
Did you make it through that entire explanation without skipping ahead to look for a tl;dr? If so, Schwarzesmarken may be the anime for you!
That paragraph is the first 90 seconds of the show, a pre-credits sequence of pure monologue exposition because "show don't tell" is a principle Schwarzesmarken has decided doesn't apply when your premise is as straightforward as "oppressive government x (alien invasion + mecha) - any shred of happiness ". I won't be watching beyond episode four, but that's because of the narrative approach rather than the fanservice.
How's the fanservice content?
Fanservice Assessment rating: Low. The main way these women are sexualised is through their pilot uniforms. It's not that often, but it's too obvious to overlook completely, especially since the male and female uniforms are not the same.
Anyway, still basically comfortable with it? Here, have a close-up of a dying woman's torn, heaving chest as she breathes her last breaths.
I just want to point out that the fanservice aspect disappears almost entirely when they are out of their mecha, in part because everyone wears the same military uniform.
What's good about it?
I'm actually confused by the fact that there is any fanservice in this anime at all, because this is one of the most equitable anime I've ever seen. There are women on screen constantly, in the foreground and the background, in control rooms and on the front lines, as leaders and subordinates, acting independently and in teams. This is a professional world Europe in 2016 can only dream of.
Even more confusing, however, is the story itself. Oppressive government, alien invasion, giant robots, tragic pasts, interpersonal conflict - Schwarzesmarken has a lot going on. However, by episode three we're starting to slow down, and if they pace it properly once the bulk of the exposition is out of the way then I can see there being some really powerful drama ahead.
From my perspective, the strongest moments come when the Big Brother aspects of their society are explored. The idea that the soldiers in this military unit need to trust each other with their lives while also knowing any of them may have informed on their own loved ones adds more tension than any number of alien creatures.
Schwarzesmarken has an ensemble cast who haven't all had a lot of screen time yet, but I like what I've seen so far of team leader Irisdina Bernhard and subordinate Theodor Eberbach. In just three episodes their relationship changes to something closer and more intense with higher stakes but still platonic and professional. I have no idea if romance is in their future, but it would have been very easy to introduce a hint of romance at this point and I respect the fact that the creators made the choice to focus on their understanding of each other rather than their attraction.
This seems to be an anime of angsty backstories, so if that's your thing you're no doubt in for a treat when each member of the ensemble gets their inevitable flashback-heavy episode in the spotlight. Importantly though, the angsty backstories we've seen so far have been rooted in and directly relevant to the larger story arc starting to emerge from the middle of episode three onwards, so it doesn't feel like completely wasted time (although they have a bad habit of repeating the same flashback more times than is necessary).
Here is where I'm afraid I have very little positive to say. With so many characters and a plot this complicated, Schwarzesmarken needed expert storytelling to be really effective. It doesn't. Check out the screenshot above; this is indicative of the Schwarzesmarken storytelling experience, which I would summarise as 'artless infodump'.
I mentioned that it starts with a 90-second monologue of pure exposition; once that's over we're thrown into the middle of mecha vs aliens combat. While that's going on, each main character gets exactly 2.5 seconds on screen with a subtitle showing you the character's name, rank and unit while the military jargon dialogue continues. Once this has happened eight times we're back in the battle, then in a control room for more military dialogue between entirely new people... And all in the first four minutes of the show. It's dense.
In the first episode especially, there is so much action and so little time with the characters that it's hard to get a grip on either, let alone both. The storytelling is more successful once it starts to narrow its focus; if it had started with just a few characters off the battlefield and gradually added in more and more characters, plot points and action it could have been a really effective escalation to the giant aliens vs. giant robots scenes we start with.
I'm glad I watched three episodes of this, because it took me multiple tries to get through the pilot alone, the full three episodes to actually care about what was going on and the post-credits scene at the end of episode three to want to watch any further. I get the feeling Schwarzesmarken will be a much more rewarding anime by the end of the series than here at the start, and if I read reviews suggesting as much once the series ends I may well come back to check it out again.