October 22, 2019

‘The Man in the High Castle’: What if the Nazis had won?

It’s a scenario almost too horrifying to contemplate: What if the Allies had lost World War II and the Germans and Japanese ruled a conquered America? This chilling hypothetical is the premise of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, “The Man in the High Castle,” as well as of the new series of the same name, which begins streaming Nov. 20 on Amazon Prime.

In the drama’s alternate reality, the occupied country is divided into The Greater Nazi Reich in the East, The Japanese Pacific States in the West and a neutral zone in the middle. Americans live without rights or freedoms and resistance is punishable by death, but an underground rebel movement exists and is central to the story. There’s also mistrust and tension between the ruling powers, as well as a secret newsreel at the center of the plot that could have cataclysmic consequences if it gets out. The opening sequence, set in New York, is visually shocking: An enormous swastika banner hangs over Times Square.

 “A project that’s alternative history, but rooted in real history, presents the possibility of confronting imagery that’s incredibly disturbing. But, at the same time, this world has an odd familiarity about it, and I think that’s what is so provocative about it,” producer David W. Zucker said in an interview. “Also, there are American Nazis, and, you wonder, how many clicks away are we from this potentially happening?”

With such a hot-button subject, it’s not surprising that the project took eight years to get made, despite big-name support coming in the form of Ridley Scott, an executive producer. “We couldn’t find a buyer in America. No one would touch it,” Zucker said. Development deals with the BBC and, later, Syfy fell through, and the option on the property ran out. Then, creator/writer/executive producer Frank Spotnitz sent it to Amazon in late 2014 and, with a green light, expanded the four-hour script to 10 hours. 

Although the fate of Jews in this society is not spelled out, at least at first, it is clear that minorities and the ill and infirm have been eliminated. In the second episode, a character who is not a practicing Jew but had a Jewish grandfather is brutally tortured for information, with the fate of his family held in the balance. The harrowing experience changes him, actor Rupert Evans said.

“He becomes radicalized. He takes matters into his own hands and decides to speak out and fight back.”

Rufus Sewell plays an American Nazi named John Smith, a character not in Dick’s novel, and he said he hesitated to accept the role at first. “We have an idea of Nazis, and, certainly, that’s based on truth and the horrors of everything that they did, but I wouldn’t be necessarily interested playing that, especially for a long period of time,” he said. “But when you meet his family in the second episode, and you see there’s another side to this person, I became interested.    

“Within his world,” Sewell said, “Smith is considered a good man, an all-American hero, and it’s that terrible irony — that you are capable of living within a system that is incredibly cruel and unjust, and you can still convince yourself that you are right. He ends up very, very conflicted.”

Sewell and other cast members delved into historical research to provide context, as did the creators, to lend verisimilitude to the 1962 setting. But the fictional premise informed everything from design, clothing and music to writing, movies and pop culture. 

“Everything requires an understanding of what was and a projection of what might have been,” Zucker said. “What would have been permitted? What stars would be allowed to make films and music? There was a lot to consider.”

Alexa Davalos, who plays key character Juliana Crain, did a lot of World War II research for her role as a Jewish partisan in “Defiance” in 2008, a role she found a lot more painful to portray. Born in Paris to American parents, she’s Lithuanian-Jewish on her father’s side. “The Man in the High Castle,” in contrast, “is historical supposition. It has this magical element and feels very different,” Davalos said.

Zucker, who also is Jewish, remembers watching Holocaust films in Hebrew school as a boy. “But it took me a long time to find a perspective that wasn’t an intellectual, academic one. It wasn’t an emotional reference for me, like it was for the earlier generation. It wasn’t until I saw ‘Europa Europa’ that I related for the first time to what it must have been like,” he said. “What I found so interesting about getting to work on a piece like this is I get a different experience of what it might have been like in a way I could more closely relate to.”

With the streaming premiere imminent, Zucker is eager to gauge worldwide reaction to “The Man in the High Castle,” particularly in Japan and Germany. If all goes as planned, he said, he looks forward to making many more episodes. “We have some really stunning storylines in mind for later seasons, when we start going more globally,” he said. “Let’s just say there are some very ironic, if not deeply provocative, alliances that develop in this world that didn’t in the one we have.

“Hopefully, it will be compelling as a drama and a hot topic.”