It’s a Freaking Miracle That We Got a Man in the High Castle TV Show

20 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘High Castle’ imagines a Nazi America.

Alexa Davalos speaks quietly, and with a not-quite-placeable accent that hints at a childhood spent in Paris and Italy. The 1960s version of Times Square in Amazon’s new series The Man in the High Castle is a familiar place, even for modern eyes, until you notice a very large swastika where the Coca-Cola sign should be. Luke Kleintank didn’t see much of that filming his scenes in the opening hour of the 10-episode first season, but was freaked out the first time he had to utter the historically infamous line “Heil Hitler.” “It is very weird. At a time when pop culture will go to all kinds of CGI and blinking-GIF extremes to make you look, this new Amazon series grabs your eyes by reaching back to dated and taboo imagery. In the years after the Allies lost World War II, the United States has been carved up: The German-occupied East is dark and disturbing, ruled by American Nazis; the Japanese-occupied West is lush with Asian-influenced designs but equally paranoid and oppressive; and the neutral zone between the two is lawless and unpredictable, a deserted landscape in which those rejected by the fascist society can rot.

Dick’s 1962 Hugo Award-winning alternate-history novel of the same name, imagines a world in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan triumphed in the Second World War, and possession of illicit fictional accounts of an Allied victory are grounds for execution. Set in 1962, the series required the show’s creators to conceive and build a world that was recognizably American but reflective of its foreign overseers. There are things you’re going to see in this show that push a lot of boundaries,” Kleintank says. “There were moments I had to sit down and take a second and step back from it. This tension is expressed both in grandiose moments, like a shot of an immense neon swastika in Times Square, and in subtler signals of a dreary, occupied America that never experienced a postwar boom. “You have to go somewhat astray, but you can’t go too far, or else it’s no longer going to feel right in our imaginations,” said Frank Spotnitz, the former producer for “The X-Files” who created this show. “It’s a period drama for a period that never was.” The action involves an emerging alternate Cold War between Japan and Germany and hinges largely on a young woman named Juliana (Alexa Davalos), who discovers a contraband film suggesting that things might not be as they appear.

It started to weigh on my soul a lot.” New York City, circa 1962, is part of the Greater Nazi Reich, while the West Coast is run by Japan in High Castle, adapted from the Philip K. The starkly remixed iconography is alarming, fascinating, and, with the world currently in paroxysms of war, uprising, and revolution, all the more thought-provoking.

There are cop shows on TV; one is about the adventures of the “Reich Patrol.” Times Square is still riotous and noisy, but one blazing sign reads “Work Will Set You Free,” the slogan — in German, “Arbeit Macht Frei” — that hung on the gates of Auschwitz. While Dick’s novel meant that the producers had “a lot of the world already imagined,” for Spotnitz it was still an enormous leap to take that world from the page to a more immersive screen. “What you realize, when you go into production, that now you have to make this real.

The bevy of major players can be hard to keep track of, whether you’ve read the book or not. (For those who have, some of the major characters won’t appear until later, and therefore aren’t in this roundup. In a somewhat tangential example, Hitler is dying in the series from Parkinson’s disease, which many historians believe he actually had, instead of syphilis, as the novel had it. On her way to a secret meeting in Canon City, Colo., Juliana witnesses the murder of her sister, Trudy, by Japanese military police in the streets of San Francisco. Robert Childan, anyone?) To prepare viewers for their binge, showrunner Frank Spotnitz and several cast members broke down the roles for EW, teasing where the characters will be headed in the season: Juliana is based in San Francisco, where she’s developed an appreciation for Japanese culture even though her father died in the war at the hands of the Japanese. “She can embrace that contradiction,” Spotnitz says. “And that was very deliberate to establish her as that kind of extraordinary person.” Part of what makes her an “extraordinary person” is her capacity for hope in a world mostly rid of it, a quality that drives her forward and fuels her desire to have an impact. “She’s on a mission, this woman,” Davalos says. “To a fault, I think.” Juliana suffers a major loss and is assigned a mission to deliver a mysterious film reel — all in one night. The producers did not want to simply overlay superficial bits of German and Japanese culture onto scenes in New York and San Francisco, but instead sought to investigate how Axis tenets would look through a midcentury American filter.

Large chunks are devoted to descriptions of Dick’s favorite hobby at the time he wrote it (jewelry making), as well as his favorite divination method (the I Ching). Soon after, she decides to travel away from San Francisco. “She’s trying to do the right thing, but terrible things keep happening as a consequence of her pursuing the right thing,” Spotnitz says.

Confused, Juliana takes her sibling’s place in the journey east, where a fledgling resistance leads her to Joe, who has been tapped to drive a truck with unknown cargo from New York to Canon City and who harbors secrets of his own. An organized Resistance is afoot, which drives the plot line, but most citizens have resigned themselves to the occupation and live in a state of quiet frustration. So when Season 1 ends nowhere close to the finale of the book, don’t fret; “Frank has plans,” Davalos promises, “but he won’t tell us any of them. Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) was excited to do a small-screen adaptation of High Castle because Dick’s novel made a big impression on him when he first read it in college. The palette of the show, too, is mostly bleak and oppressive, with crumbling brick buildings and dirty streets, the only bursts of color coming from the disturbing red, white, and black signage.

Still, Kleintank emphasizes that Joe’s not actually sure on which side he belongs, because his ideology is in flux. “He has this duplicity about him, so he’s an interesting shade of grey,” Kleintank says of his character. “He was raised in this world, so I don’t think there’s a good guy or a bad guy mentality. The story’s characters begin to question the authenticity of their own world when a fictional work presents an alternate-history within an alternate-history that looks eerily like our own world. A scene in the home of a Nazi Party boss emblematically named Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) was shot as if it were a vintage family sitcom, the son complaining over the breakfast table about a self-promoting Hitler Youth chum at school. At one point, we see a rundown movie theater whose marquee reads, “CLOS_D F_REVER.” In the lobby, an old poster for the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” has the word “Semites” scrawled across it.

Unfortunately, the next five episodes — which is all Amazon allowed us to review in advance — manage to squander that promise, thanks largely to turgid plotting, pacing and dialogue. America’s actual postwar period included racial segregation and the onset of the Cold War, but on the surface it was a time of great optimism, with space age automobile aesthetics and Glenn Miller giving way to Elvis on the radio.

It’s got to overlap significantly and yet be different.” Spotnitz credited Amazon with giving him “the financial support to make [these ideas] come to full life … it’s something that makes an additional pleasure of writing the project, that you’re able to venture, our lens isn’t so narrowly focused. She sees past ideology and sees people, and I think that’s why she’s a hero.” Juliana and her boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), live a low-profile life — until Juliana’s half-sister Trudy suddenly shows up talking about a new job. But after struggling through the dull, confusing and unrelentingly grim story so far, I can confirm that this is going to be a hard show for anyone to binge-watch. Most try to convince themselves that their lives are normal, like a Missouri highway cop who explains to a passer-by a gentle snow of falling ash. “That’s the hospital,” he says. “Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill. Her father was killed by the Japanese, yet she still studies Aikido — and because she’s pretty good, it’s a skill that helps her later. “She’s a dreamer, she’s mischievous and she has a curiosity about the world.

Each time an English-speaking person says “Sieg Heil” and gives a Hitler salute (which is currently illegal in Germany, Austria, and other countries), the show provides yet another effective chill. While a high-budget, high-concept adaptation of an obscure book from the 1960s may have made TV networks leery in the past, long-form genre fare like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” may have paved the way for the show’s production. The producers settled on a desaturated color palette to signal the bleakness of an occupied nation as well the utilitarian values of its fascist conquerors. You’d notice that someone would come in to play a part for one or two days and automatically speak with a German accent even though the character was American. [Your] body goes straight, your diction becomes clipped.

He’s of Jewish ancestry, though he considers himself secular, and “Jews,” as a Japanese official tells him, “don’t get to decide if they’re Jews.” Their separate peace is broken when Juliana’s sister is killed for carrying a banned film, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.” It appears to be newsreel footage from our historical timeline — victorious United States troops raising the flag, Franklin D. Feeling compelled to complete Trudy’s assignment — and looking for answers about the film’s meaning — Juliana boards a bus for Cañon City, Colo. “I think it’s very personal for her. Because sometimes the greatest zealots have that.” And yes, “John Smith” is his real name. “I deliberately gave him the most all-American, generic name I could think of,” Spotnitz says. “ ‘Obergruppenführer John Smith’ just has that, like, [there are] so many syllables in German and then ‘John Smith.’” Tagomi is the trade minister for the Japanese Pacific States—and the character blessed with the title of “Philip K.

But they wanted to “do it the old-fashioned way,” said Drew Boughton, the production designer, instead of using technical effects to turn down the color. Why?” says Spotnitz, a veteran writer-producer (“The X-Files”). “I think that seeing the film gave her hope, which she probably was looking for her whole life without knowing it.

Audrey Fisher, the costume designer, took her cues from a trip she made to East Berlin in the 1980s. “It seemed like time had stopped 20 years before, and there was a gray haze over everything, so I used that as a jumping-off point,” she said. That is why the series, even though it’s dystopian and dark, doesn’t feel depressing to me, ’cause it’s really about hope.” In Cañon City, Juliana meets Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), who has also transported a film there. For the civilian characters, that meant earth tones and very few patterns, and any newly constructed clothes were distressed to make them look old and worn.

It’s a nice meta touch: The show is filled with arresting and challenging visuals, and the “Grasshopper” film so feared by the Nazis and the Japanese represents the power of visuals. In deference to imagined modesty mandates, women on the show wear upper-arm-concealing blouses and jackets and conservative skirts; slacks were used only on rebellious female characters like Juliana’s sister, an underground operative.

Is he deeply conflicted or just following orders? “That’s one of the things about watching his character — you can never quite make up your mind whether he’s good or bad. I’m betting it’s why the show’s writer-producer, Frank Spotnitz (of “The X-Files” and “Strike Back”), changed “Grasshopper” from a book in the Dick novel into a movie. Tagomi and Wegener’s machinations are challenging to pull off — they involve plenty of spy work on Wegener’s part — but Wegener believes it’s his duty to do whatever is needed to stop any chance of Germany conquering the Pacific States. “He continues on his path,” Spotnitz says. “It’s all about passing the atomic secrets to the Japanese to create a balance of power, a balance of terror.”

In Frank’s plot line, by the way, there is a scene set in a Japanese government room and I challenge you not to notice and fear the air vent in the ceiling. The characters should not. “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” was in Dick’s version, too — it was an alternate history book within an alternate history book that imagined the Allies winning the war.

And I just thought for a television series, it made a lot more sense that it’s not a novel that you’re talking about, but films that you can see,” Spotnitz says. The other executive producers include Ridley Scott and Isa Dick Harris, the novelist’s daughter, who is “very much an active producer of the show,” Spotnitz says.

In the TV show, however, multiple characters have seen the newsreels and instantly believed in their reality for no real reason that the show cares to explain. Computer-generated imagery was of course a core component, fleshing out signature sequences like the Times Square scene and shots of a Japanese San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. The series is trying to explore difficult themes — the psychology of defeat, free will vs. fate, the tensions between conquering cultures — but its thin characters and pulp story twists raise doubt as to whether its sophistication matches its ambition.

In sweeping helicopter shots of the Manhattan skyline, for example, technicians removed any obvious postwar skyscrapers, including the United Nations complex. The visual effects team inserted a hulking Nazi headquarters in its place. “We were very careful, in all of our shots, to make sure it was the tallest building, to make it look menacing and imposing,” said Terry Hutcheson, a visual effects producer. The production did what it could to keep from roiling the emotions of locals during filming, covering armbands between scenes and waiting as long as possible before hoisting inflammatory flags and banners. News of Frank’s sister’s death in captivity gets around, but a major political figure is shot in front of a crowd of thousands and the authorities manage to keep it quiet.

Spotnitz to ask about the Japanese soldiers standing outside a bus terminal. “She says, ‘I’m from the Philippines; I remember those uniforms,’” he said. You’d hardly know Rupert Evans was a renowned Shakespearean actor for all the times he has to say, or react to, the cringeworthy line “get the hell away from me!” Platforms like Amazon are supposed to give showrunners the freedom to take risks.

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