How Amazon's The Man in the High Castle Creates an American Reich

TV Features The Man in the High Castle
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How Amazon's <i>The Man in the High Castle</i> Creates an American Reich

“Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Sieg heil!”

The sound is faint across the lot’s expanse, but it is unmistakable. As is the soldiers’ stiff-armed salute, performed in unison before an imposing proscenium, or the “patriotic” bunting, a marriage of swastikas with the red, white and blue. A man roars from the stage, his voice throaty, choking: “Today,” he says, “history ends, and the future begins!”

The man is not Heinrich Himmler. The year is not 1962. And I am not attending an American Nazi rally in the environs of Vancouver, British Columbia. But I might be, were it not for the green screens on cranes that will transform this semi-industrial wasteland into a teeming New York street, and that’s exactly the point: The strength of Amazon’s science fiction / counterfactual history The Man in the High Castle, which imagines a world in which the Axis won World War II, is its iconographic invention of an American Reich. (Its grasp on the relationship between postwar California and imperial Japan turns out to be much, much shakier.) Now entering its third season, the series, developed by Frank Spotniz from Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, remains a useful reminder of the power of symbols, as I wrote of Season One:

“Even the title sequence, pairing the whir of moving celluloid with a chilling rendition of “Edelweiss”—made famous by the anti-fascist classic The Sound of Music—comes to suggest the incremental changes by which the culture we love might become a culture that terrifies us. It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind not only for the imagined past of The Man in the High Castle, but also for the many possible futures of the fallen world it doesn’t depict: ours.

As production designer Drew Boughton explains, speaking over the echoes of the rally scene being filmed in the distance, it’s the uncanniness of the series’ aesthetic, its “almost normal” aspect, that distinguishes it from other period pieces on TV. (Case in point: Despite having visited the sets of series about zombies, alien invasions, and Russian spies, I was completely unprepared for the surreal sight of men in dark suits and pinch-front fedoras, bright swastika armbands looped around their biceps, waiting in line for lunch or standing next to me at the urinals.) Citing the pro-Nazi American Bund in the 1930s, the Brutalist architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, nostalgia for the Old West—in a “neutral zone” trading post set that’s new to The Man in the High Castle this season—and Mad Men’s glittering New York, Boughton draws on a range of influences for the series’ heady, quasi-historical brew.

“We’re making something that is this weird bastard mix of American history and Nazi history,” he says, “to create this kind of weird nightmare.”

Whether The Man in the High Castle succeeds in making its milieu nightmarish enough is an open question. As Aaron Bady, the series’ most incisive critic, noted in The New Yorker soon after the debut of Season Two, the series’ increasing focus on the private lives of fascist officials—Takeshi Kido (Joel de la Fuente), the chief of the Japanese imperial police force in San Francisco, and especially John Smith (the compelling Rufus Sewell), an American-born Nazi rising in the ranks and residing in the Long Island suburbs—risks losing sight of their participation in heinous regimes. Season Three complicates this problem. On the one hand, it devotes so much attention to Smith and his wife, Helen (Chelah Horsdal), in the aftermath of their sickly son’s extermination by the government that the anti-fascist characters—resistance operative Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) and her counterpart/love interest/double agent Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank)—become a second thought. On the other, much of that attention revolves around Himmler’s proposed “Year Zero”—the eradication of Americanisms from the American Reich—and a propaganda film about Smith directed by a “next generation Leni Riefenstahl” named Nicole Dörmer (Bella Heathcote). In a sense, the series’ background, which has always been its most fascinating feature, has now become its subject.

From the Four Corners Trading Post and the Denver Grand Palace to the Waldorf Ballroom and the Smiths’ New York City apartment—all rendered in the richly detailed drawings posted on set for press—the seasons’ locations pose their own, highly relevant question: Is there a clear line of demarcation between fascism and Americanism, and if so, what is it? In trying to find (and toe) that line, visual effects supervisor Lawson Deming says, the key is to set limits, not explode them.

“We’re kind of penning ourselves in with reality,” he says, underscoring the stratagem of speculative fiction from 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 to Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. “If it’s so big that you don’t believe it, or it’s like a fantasy, it’s not impactful anymore, because part of the point of the show is, ‘This really could have happened.’”

The process, on The Man in the High Castle, is a complex calculus of addition (buildings, crowds, flags and standards), subtraction (Boughton specifically cites the ’57 Chevy as something that can’t exist in this universe), and re-creation: As costume designer Catherine Adair suggests, “Fashion repeats itself,” so color palettes and silhouettes naturally bear the marks of multiple eras and stylistic movements at once. The hybrid sum of this equation comes across most forcefully in a scene from the Season Three premiere, in which Dörmer meets with the Nazi minister of propaganda in New York. Arranged around his office are a series of Reich-approved posters inspired by—and unnervingly twisting—Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech. The campaign’s promises include “Freedom from Fear” (a black silhouette with a white question mark), “Freedom to Explore” (a traveler, knapsack slung over his shoulder, standing amid American Reich flags), “Freedom to Propagate” (a Norman Rockwell-esque family), and “Freedom to Prosper” (a sturdy, almost WPA-style worker).

Remixing its historical allusions in this way, the design of The Man in the High Castle achieves what its plotting (so far) has not, which is to highlight the ways in which the stable, prosperous decade-plus that followed World War II in our reality resembles the stable, prosperous American Reich in that of the series. Sewell, as eloquent an interview subject as I’ve met, perfectly captures The Man in the High Castle’s primary merit—which is also, after a fashion, its foremost dilemma—when I ask about combining the American suburbs with the Nazi regime in Seasons One and Two, an aesthetic I’d jokingly taken to calling “Führer Knows Best.”

“There’s a danger in the Führer Knows Best idea,” Sewell admits, “because it’s very tempting, and it’s a kind of campy postcard notion that works very well visually. But you’ve got to be careful it doesn’t work so well that you let your choices be run by a kind of cute iconographic idea. After a while, for example, in Season One, I personally asked to have a ban put on cute cardies [cardigans], because this idea of the pipe-smoking, cardigan-wearing Nazi who knows best could almost be an ironic postcard collection, and it was more important to concentrate on a real character rather than an idea. So, one of the things that we realized very quickly was that you don’t have to shift the 1950s Americana idea very far for it to work in complete tandem with Nazi ideology. Because that world—certainly, what remains of that world in terms of the advertising, the television—is more or less white, Anglo-Saxon, male-oriented. You don’t have to change it much. It’s practically already there for you.”

Season Three of The Man in the High Castle is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.