Amazon's 'High Castle' Offers A Chilling Alternate History Of Nazi Triumph | KERA News

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

Nov 18, 2015
Originally published on November 18, 2015 5:47 pm

For broadcast TV, this year's fall season has been decidedly, and disappointingly, below average, especially for drama series. 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.

The show is called The Man in the High Castle. It's based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, the same writer whose stories inspired the movies Blade Runner and Total Recall, and it's excellent.

The executive producers of The Man in the High Castle include Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner in 1982, and David W. Zucker, who, with Scott, is another of the executive producers of The Good Wife on CBS.

But the real workhorse here is Frank Spotnitz, who developed The Man in the High Castle for television and wrote the first two scripts. He was a writer and producer on The X-Files, and this is the show that, if life is fair, should make lots of people take notice.

The Man in the High Castle is Dick's alternative history story, based on a chilling hypothetical: What if the Allies had lost World War II? The action takes place on American soil in 1962, almost a generation after the war. Back when the novel was written, that was the present day. Now it's a period piece, but that somehow makes it even more evocative.

It's not the country we remember from the '60s. 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.

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. One of the weapons used by the resistance is a psychological one. 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.

Are the films meant as cleverly staged wish fulfillments to motivate the resistance fighters? Or are they actual glimpses of some other universe, some other reality? At first, we have no idea — and it's one of the mysteries that propels this drama so intriguingly.

Many of the goose-bump-inducing moments in this new drama are visual and are startling. Picture this: In Times Square, a giant neon swastika emblazons a building. Or an American flag with the familiar colors — but instead of stars and stripes, there's a swastika where the stars used to be. 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.

The alternate-history American map in The Man in the High Castle is made even more jarring, and creepy, by the sound, and the song, that accompanies it in the opening of each episode. 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.

The three central characters of The Man in the High Castle are young people caught up in all the postwar drama and turmoil. Alexa Davalos plays Juliana, a woman who gets pulled into the resistance after coming into possession of one of those films. Rupert Evans plays Frank, a man whose proximity to Juliana has him targeted by the Nazis. 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 Man in the High Castle accomplishes so much, where most new broadcast TV dramas these days don't even try. 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. Its use of music is clever and memorable — early episodes make room for both the anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit" and the Japanese love song that became a No. 1 hit in the U.S. in 1963, under the insulting title "Sukiyaki." And finally, as a TV series with a captivating production design, The Man in the High Castle is as breathtakingly original as Twin Peaks and Pushing Daisies.

You have to see it to believe it. And even then, like the characters who watch the filmstrips in The Man in the High Castle, you may not believe it. But that's the point.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Friday, the Amazon Prime video streaming service releases the entire first season of a new drama series called "The Man In The High Castle." It's based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, whose stories also inspired the films "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall." Our TV critic, David Bianculli, says it's not only good, its better than any new drama series this fall on broadcast or cable TV. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The executive producers of "The Man In The High Castle" include Ridley Scott, who directed the brilliant "Blade Runner" movie back in 1982 and David W. Zucker who, with Scott, is another of the executive producers of "The Good Wife" on CBS. But the real workhorse here is Frank Spotnitz who developed "The Man In The High Castle" for television and wrote the first two scripts. He was a writer and producer on the "X-Files," and this is the show that if life is fair should make lots of people take notice. "The Man In The High Castle" is Philip K. Dick's alternative history story based on a chilling hypothetical. What if the allies had lost World War II? The action takes place on American soil in 1962 almost a generation after the war. Back when the novel was written that was the present day. Now it's a period piece, but that somehow makes it even more evocative. It's not the country we remember from the '60s. It's 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. 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. And one of the weapons used by the resistance is a psychological one - film canisters containing what look to be vintage newsreels but showing an alternative history that we recognize as our own - the Nazis losing, the Japanese surrendering and America and England emerging triumphantly. Are the films meant as cleverly staged wish fulfillments to motivate the resistance fighters? Or are they actual glimpses of some other universe, some other reality? At first, we have no idea. But it's one of the mysteries that propels this drama so intriguingly. Many of the goose-bump-inducing moments in this new drama are visual and are startling. Picture this - in Times Square a giant neon swastika emblazons a building or an American flag with the familiar colors - but instead of stars and stripes, there's a swastika where the stars used to be. Even the map of the former United States of America is disturbing to witness - much more so than those windup maps of opposing territories opening each episode of HBO's "Game Of Thrones." The alternative-history American map in "The Man In The High Castle" is made even more jarring and creepy by the sound and the song that accompanies it in the opening of each episode. 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 sung here in a much more haunting performance than you're used to from "The Sound of Music."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS")

JEANETTE OLSSON: (Singing) Edelweiss, Edelweiss. Every morning you greet me, small and white, clean and bright. You look happy to meet me, blossom of snow may you bloom and grow bloom and grow forever. Edelweiss, Edelweiss bless my homeland forever.

BIANCULLI: The three central characters of "The Man In The High Castle" are young people caught up in all the post-war drama and turmoil. Alexa Davalos plays Juliana, a woman who gets pulled into the resistance after coming into possession of one of those films. Rupert Evans plays Frank, a man who's proximity to Juliana has him targeted by the Nazis. 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 freedom fighter played by Michael Rispoli isn't exactly welcoming.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE")

MICHAEL RISPOLI: (As Don Warren) So this is what they send to me now. How old are you, 28?

LUKE KLEINTANK: (As Joe Blake) 27.

RISPOLI: (As Don Warren) 27? What the hell you doing here, Joe Blake?

KLEINTANK: (As Joe Blake) I want my country back, sir.

RISPOLI: (As Don Warren) You want it back? You never had it.

KLEINTANK: (As Joe Blake) Sir?

RISPOLI: (As Don Warren) You were still sucking your thumb when they dropped the bomb. This [expletive] is the only country you've ever known.

KLEINTANK: (As Joe Blake) Well, my father told me what it was like before the war.

RISPOLI: (As Don Warren) Your father huh?

KLEINTANK: (As Joe Blake) He said every man was free.

RISPOLI: (As Don Warren) How do I know you're not a spy?

KLEINTANK: (As Joe Blake) A spy?

RISPOLI: (As Don Warren) The resistance - what's left of it is shot through with them. Half my friends are dead. Guess that's why their down to kids like you.

KLEINTANK: (As Joe Blake) I'm not a spy.

BIANCULLI: "The Man In The High Castle" accomplishes so much where most new broadcast TV dramas these days don't even try. As a parable about war, it's as potent as "The Day After" or "Testament," two TV productions from the '80s that imagine nuclear bombs falling on American cities. Its use of music is clever and memorable. Early episodes make room for both the anti-lynching anthems "Strange Fruit" and the Japanese love song that became a number-one hit in the U.S. in 1963 under the insulting title, "Sukiyaki." And finally, as a TV series with a captivating production design, "The Man In The High Castle" is as breathtakingly original as "Twin Peaks" and "Pushing Daisies." You have to see it to believe it. And even then, like the characters who watch the filmstrips in "The Man In The High Castle," you may not believe it, but that's the point.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "The Man In The High Castle," an original web video series from Amazon. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, what people do in the name of God. Capturing that is the goal of photographer, Abbas, who will be my guest. He's done photo books about militant Islam and has a current exhibit about Islam, Christianity and Judaism called "The Children Of Abraham." He grew up in Iran and Algeria and has lived in France since the late '60s. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.