The unsettling alternate history of ‘The Man In The High Castle’

19 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

Philip K. Frank Spotnitz was in Rome last weekend for a screening of his new Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle,” and fortunately, his family was there with him, he says, when “all those terrible events” happened in Paris, the city they now call home.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. The book, which arrives as an Amazon TV series tomorrow, follows a group of characters, among them a young woman named Juliana (Alex Davalos) who discover a story (a book in the novel and a series of films in the TV show) about what it might be like if the United States had won World War II and emerged as the predominant global superpower. (Standard disclaimer: Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) The series was an opportunity for creator Frank Spotnitz to create a visually rich riff on the ’60s that captures some of the “Mad Men” vibe while unsettling audiences with the sight of Nazi regalia in New York City and Japanese flags in San Francisco.

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. 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. 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. 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. In the “High Castle” scenario, Germany and Japan are engaged in a high-level Cold War, and these men make the stakes wrapped up in that unsteady alliance come alive. Dick wrote this as a parable of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” Spotnitz says. “In this case, the Nazis are stronger than the Japanese … and Hitler, uncharacteristically, is showing restraint. 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.

He’s old and ill, and a lot of senior officers are getting impatient and want him to just take out the Japanese so they can control the whole planet.” Spotnitz — whose wife Melissa spent part of her childhood in Washington Township, where she still has an aunt whom the family visits at the holidays — first read Dick’s novel as a college student in 1981, and it stayed with him. “I was so used to movies and TV shows where the good guys win, and it just really struck me that there’s a story where the good guys lose — and they lost a long time and are living in defeat,” he says. “And that really haunted me.” The story’s heroine is Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who, as the story begins, is living in Japanese-occupied San Francisco and studying aikido, the Japanese martial art. “In the pilot you learn that her father was killed by the Japanese, and yet that doesn’t stop her from studying aikido and seeing the beauty of it,” Spotnitz says. “So, she’s got this largeness of spirit, where she can understand the contradiction, that this could be a culture that was responsible for her father’s death and still has beauty in it. 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. 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. 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. It has been divided up by its conquerors, with the Nazis ruling the East, the Japanese ruling the West, and a strip of desolate neutral zone around the Rocky Mountains. 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? 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. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

You start to figure out that this is what his father raised him as, and he really has no interest in the ideology of the Nazis, he just happens to be born in that place.” There is also Juliana’s Frank, whom Spotnitz describes as “the character most like me and probably most like the audience in that he just wants to get on with his life. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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