Amazon’s ‘High Castle’ Offers A Chilling Alternate History Of Nazi Triumph

19 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Man in the High Castle’ turns history upside-down.

For broadcast TV, this year’s fall season has been decidedly, and disappointingly, below average, especially for drama series. Of all the alternate histories available to writers and producers with active imaginations, perhaps none is more tempting — or depressing — than the fiction of an Allied defeat in World War II.It’s not just startling to see Times Square with a huge swastika in neon lights, it’s shocking to see seemingly all-American households where the dad puts on black boots and an SS uniform and the teenage son is a member of Hitler Youth. “We were in downtown Seattle, and we had 150 extras in period costumes,” he said. “And there was a little Nazi memorabilia around. But on streaming television, there’s a new show — available on Amazon Prime Video in its first-season entirety on Friday — that’s about to change all that.

An elderly Hitler who has survived into the early 1960s lurks like an ominous ghost in the background of this handsome series, which expands the Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel “The Man in the High Castle,” which begins streaming Friday, takes us to a gray, washed-out North America two decades after Hitler got the bomb and blew Washington to kingdom come, bringing about a U.S. surrender to Germany and Japan. This is a measured show — at times, truthfully, a trifle too measured — thus a welcome element of unpredictability is supplied by Rufus Sewell, who plays John Smith, a suave and seemingly unflappable Nazi official.

That chilling story took more than 50 years to come to the screen, but it arrives Friday on Amazon, adapted by Frank Spotnitz (“The X-Files”), with Ridley Scott as an executive producer. Sewell gives his character a rich interior life, hinting at difficult war memories that drive Obergruppenfuhrer Smith to act ever more resolutely in the name of the Reich. In the world of High Castle, mere hints of treason are punishable by death, disappearances aren’t out of the ordinary, and newspapers, films, and even game shows are immersed in propaganda. Juliana heads for the Rockies to fulfill her sister’s mission, leaving her Jewish boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), behind to deal with Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), the ruthless head of the local secret police.

View Archive Now, everything from the East Coast to the Midwest is part of the Greater Nazi Reich; the West Coast has been renamed the Japanese Pacific States. What may be most chilling about Smith is his warmth; the man can turn his charm on and off at will, and his watchful eyes indicate a steely soul that’s wiling to go to any lengths to ensure the Nazi definition of “peace.” His green protege in the intelligence-gathering service, young Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), looks up to his boss, but is also understandably afraid of Smith’s intelligence, will and quicksilver temperament.

Picking up 17 years after Washington, D.C., was nuked, our nation is a divided land mass, with Nazi Germany ruling the East and Imperial Japan the West. And the Rocky Mountain states serve as both a buffer zone and a no man’s land, a poverty-stricken refuge for African Americans and other marginalized people who are hiding out from amendments to the Final Solution. Scenes featuring de la Fuente, Sewell and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as a high-ranking trade minister, Nobusuke Tagomi, benefit from these actors’ gravitas and magnetism.

Zucker approached Scott nine years ago, citing “an obvious association to ‘Blade Runner.’” American TV initially wasn’t interested. “We took it around town,” Zucker told TV critics this summer in Los Angeles. “Obviously, eight or nine years ago, Amazon wasn’t even an option.” The producers’ nine-year option on the book was about to expire when Amazon stepped in. But yet certain things did happen, which we took from our world.” Executive producer Frank Spotnitz (“The X-Files,” “Millennium,” “The Lone Gunmen”) said the “biggest challenge” was creating the visuals that show a world much like our own in 1962 — but not altogether the same. “We knew from the pilot on we were establishing the rules of this world and we needed to honor them however many years this show went forward,” Spotnitz said.

At different points, both Juliana and Joe manage to have a look at the films they are carrying, which seem to show newsreels of a U.S. victory in the war, which goes against everything they were brought up to believe. In the ’80s, ABC’s movie “The Day After” and follow-up alternate-history mini, “Amerika,” were seen by millions of viewers, and also bummed out every one of them.

The series might actually benefit from the occasional injection of exposition: Certain connections and story elements are sometimes a little murkier than they could be, especially when viewers are expected to recall incidents that occurred several episodes earlier. Bumming out viewers as an operating principle has rarely been embraced by the TV networks, at least on purpose, so leave it to a streaming service to bum them out instead. On the other hand, artists are squelched (Elvis and the Beatles never happened), minorities and the chronically ill are persecuted, and citizens are routinely subjected to the brutal whims of law enforcement officials. Some of these resentful citizens have formed a U.S. resistance movement that has become emboldened by the discovery of contraband newsreel footage appearing to show the Allies winning the war. The author first put the idea into executive producer Ridley Scott’s head in the early ’80s, back when Scott was directing Blade Runner, the film adaptation of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Both sides of the Rockies are police states, but in different ways — and there’s a resistance, an underground, working to topple the oppressive governments in charge. All the while there’s an overarching conspiracy thread, as a Japanese official (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) schemes with a German spy to disrupt the uneasy peace between the two nations. It’s vitally important that any alternate reality allow the viewer to believe the alien setting is real, and that’s the case here, thanks to the show’s detailed prisons, apartments and offices.

There are literally thousands of props and set design and costume and hair design issues.” “We spent a lot of time talking to Frank about the world,” Evans said. “Although it’s set in 1962, it’s an alternative universe. That novel shared characteristics with what Scott had envisioned for Blade Runner, from the totalitarian setting to the city streets drenched in glaring neon signs.

Film canisters contain what look to be vintage newsreels, but show an alternate history that we recognize as our own: the Nazis losing, the Japanese surrendering, and America and England emerging triumphantly. In this alternate reality, the Nazis did develop a nuclear weapon, even though real history tells us Hitler could have not cared less about “atoms” and what they could do. Yet despite his experience writing for The X-Files, Spotnitz struggled to fit everything into an hour-long drama. “I was afraid to touch it,” he admits. “I was like, ‘I love this book, but it’s not a TV show. There is not much hope in this serious, ambitious drama, but there are moments of real connection that make one believe that individuals — and even images — can make a difference.

From their ranks, the Nazis have found Quislings and fellow travelers, like Sewell’s blandly named “John Smith” with the monstrous honorific, “Obergruppenfuhrer.” He and his perverse “Leave It to Beaver” brood even live on a tree-lined street, in a nice neighborhood, identified only as “Greater Nazi Reich, Eastern Division, Long Island.” In theory, Amazon’s “High Castle” should be full of ideas — big, swelling, exciting ones, about the nature of freedom, and the role of individuals in a democracy; or about fate, or the tenuous nature of human existence. He’s cut scenes and characters and added others, including a mysterious German officer (Rufus Sewell). “We depart from the novel, but we only did it to try to be more faithful to the ideas, to try and find ways to dramatize them more clearly,” Spotnitz explains. We talked about fashion.” Evans plays Frank Frink, a jewelry designer and “antique” maker who lives quietly in the “Japanese Pacific States,” hiding the fact that he is Jewish. In fact, it’s not entirely clear (from the first four hours I saw) that “Castle” is much interested in those ideas, or at least putting them before the story — a story that proceeds deliberatively, by the way, often too deliberatively. The success of adapting High Castle also hinged on whether the series’ producers could build the ominous world Dick had envisioned while making it seem real.

A glimpse at an occupied U.S.A. is both chilling and breathtaking: The opening credits, set to “Edelweiss,” show war footage of the Allied troops losing, as projected onto Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty. Even the map of the former United States of America is disturbing to witness — much more so than those wind-up maps of opposing territories opening each episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. On top of that, neither Kleintank nor Davalos exhibit the magnetism required of lead actors, even though Kleintank’s character, Joe, has the added value of not being exactly honest about who he really is — a fact that’s apparent from the first episode. Zucker, David Semel, Stewart MacKinnon, Christian Baute, Isa Dick Hackett, Christopher Tricarico, Jace Richdale, Richard Heus; producers, Michael Cedar, Erin Smith; director, Semel; writer, Spotnitz; camera, James Hawkinson; production designer, Drew Boughton; editor, Kathryn Himoff; costume designer, Audrey Fisher; music, Henry Jackman, Dominic Lewis; casting, Denise Chamian. 60 MIN.

Swastikas can be seen on license plates, flags, and pay phones; the rising sun decorates billboards, banners, and uniforms. “It’s a dark world, because obviously, the fascist forces have won,” Spotnitz says. “But it’s not without hope.” Because in the end, even alternate histories can be changed. It’s the sound of a film projector whirring into action — underscoring the importance of those illicit films — followed by the old familiar song “Edelweiss” being sung in a much more haunting performance than you’re used to from The Sound of Music.

Just look at all the people who, a couple of weeks ago, were having the hot but meaningless Internet debate about whether one would be willing to travel back in time and murder an infant Hitler. And Luke Kleintank plays Joe Blake, a young man who, as we meet him in the opening episode, makes his way to a resistance leader and offers his services. As a parable about war, it’s as potent as The Day After or Testament, two TV productions from the ’80s that imagined nuclear bombs falling on American cities.

Then on Friday, Netflix unleashes “Marvel’s Jessica Jones.” Starring a snarky Krysten Ritter, it’s a 13-episode action series that follows the adventures of a former superhero rebuilding her personal life and career as a New York City detective, all while trying to keep her incredible powers under wraps.

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