In many ways Amazon Prime’s new drama The Man In The High Castle is the stuff of people’s nightmares. The show presents a world where the AXIS powers won World War II, swastikas fly high in Times Square, and Jews, invalids, and minorities are casually sent to gas chambers. Still, what’s perhaps most chilling about this alternate America is how it shows not only how many people would just roll along with these fascist regimes, but how it’s not all that distant from our actual reality.
Showrunner and creator Frank Spotnitz was excited to create a world that forced people to examine what makes us different from our enemies. “There’s things that Rufus Sewell[‘s Nazi character John Smith] says in episode two to his son where you’ve got to really listen carefully. ‘Why is that different than what I believe? What’s the difference between them and us?'”
The scene in question features Smith giving an “Atticus Finch-esque” lecture about ethics and discipline to his tween son over breakfast. The characters live in an upscale suburb in Long Island that looks just like the world of Ozzie and Harriet, if not bedecked in Nazi flags.
Sewell told us that it’s so terrifying because history shows us how close we are to a fascist takeover even today. “In terms of people thinking, ‘It couldn’t happen here,’ there’s nowhere that was more funky and modern and cutting-edge and accepting of different sexualities than Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. Nowhere. That’s where it all was happening. And that flipped into Nazism,” he said.
Of course, America isn’t just under the thumb of the Third Reich in The Man In The High Castle. The west coast is part of Japan’s imperial territories and the scenes set in San Francisco offer a reverse image of racism in 1960s America.
Rupert Evans plays Frank Frink, a would-be artist living in San Francisco who must keep his head down in order to survive since one of his grandfathers was Jewish. Evans teased a future storyline dealing with how religion is controlled by the ruling class. “Suddenly you’ll see in the show how the Japanese are making Buddhism mainstream in what is predominantly a traditionally Christian country,” he said. “Actually I have a whole storyline about how people feel like they should conform to kind of fit in with the Japanese way of thinking and how that is used with Buddhism, but within churches that were originally built as Christian churches.”
Japanese-American actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays Japanese Trade Minister Tagomi and told us he was drawn to the show by the “absolute controversy of it.” Tagawa was born in post-World War II Japan and immigrated to the United States with his single mother when he was six years old and felt the same pull to conform that Evans was describing. “We landed in North Carolina and it was ‘Oh my God. Welcome to America in 1955 in the South with all this stuff going on.’ I really felt like a stranger in a strange land.” He added that as a young boy he “figured out a strategy” to deal with the culture shift he felt. “It was so automatic, I didn’t even think about it until years later.”
However, when we spoke to star Luke Kleintank, he was quick to highlight an important distinction between their warped world and ours. “You do have freedom. You know, you have a voice. I think that’s different. In [Man In The High Castle] you wouldn’t have a voice.”
“But there is something about Fascism that is built into our DNA,” said Spotnitz. “It’s not German. It’s not Japanese. It’s an impulse that all people have and we have to fight against it. Intolerance, hatred of the other, fear… You know these are things that lead to terrible things in history and I think we always have to be on guard against it. That’s what this show does for me. It sort of reminds us to value what we have and to fight to change things that aren’t what they should be.”[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzz_6dmv03I]
The entire first season of The Man In The High Castle debuts on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, November 20. You can watch the pilot for free by clicking here. Prime subscribers can stream the first two episodes right now.