The Nazis lost World War II, but they've conquered the American imagination. Seventy years after his suicide, Hitler is still everywhere: in the movies, on YouTube, in political headlines and on the History Channel.
The latest manifestation of our Third Reich fixation is The Man in the High Castle, Amazon's highly engaging alternate history (based on the Philip K. Dick novel), which imagines what the United States might look like if Hitler and Hirohito had defeated the Allies. (A German H-bomb on Washington, D.C., elicits American surrender.) The series' pilot is the most-watched in Amazon's history — a ratings feat achieved thanks to an irresistible high concept, the production team's cinematic execution and showrunner Frank Spotnitz's Rod Serling–esque dedication to telling stories that inspire skepticism and self-reflection.
Best known as Chris Carter's right-hand man for most of the The X-Files' run, the Japanese-born, American-raised, Paris-based Spotnitz brings a rare historical and international outlook to his sprawling, meticulously planned dystopia. Spotnitz has streamlined Dick's multiple-perspective narrative — and sanded down some of the 1962 book's unrulier edges, like the reinstitution of slavery in the South — to focus largely on Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), an ordinary young woman from San Francisco, the capital of the Japanese Pacific States. When her resistance-fighter sister is murdered for possessing a mysterious banned film, Juliana heads to the Neutral Zone, a buffer area along the Rockies that divides the Japanese- and Nazi-occupied territories, to discover who made a movie worth killing for — and why.
Despite its occasionally solemn pacing, The Man in the High Castle boasts thoughtfully imaginative world-building, a tragically vile character in the compelling John Smith (played by Rufus Sewell), and a vision of 1962 that's shot through with both a national sense of loss and an emerging amnesia about America before the war. In surprising ways, it resonates deeply with the current political moment.
In an interview this week, speaking softly and in full, eloquent paragraphs, Spotnitz laid out for me his own theories about why the Nazis still fascinate: “Hitler, tragically, was an incredibly evil and dangerous villain who managed to kill people with a hateful ideology and on an unprecedented scale. He also happened to have costumes and production design that were tailor-made for Hollywood. They really were amazing, their aesthetics for their cause: their buildings, their military uniforms, their parades, their marches, their Leni Riefenstahl films. And so it's no surprise that they've become the central villains when we think about foreign threats and that they still occupy a singular place in the world's imagination.”
The Reich in High Castle is a living, breathing, scheming one. A leadership crisis hits when an aging Hitler is diagnosed with Parkinson's and his would-be successors plot an invasion of Japan to complete world domination. But for all that, Spotnitz seems most concerned with retraining viewers to recognize humanity, even that of fascists.
“We've seen Nazis so many times that we really don't see them anymore,” he explains. “They're caricatures, like in Indiana Jones, the 'bad guys.' That's not who the Nazis were. They were real people. Some of them were insane, some of them were sociopaths, but not all of them. An awful lot of them were people who, if Hitler had never come to power, would have led very different lives and wouldn't have done these terrible crimes. That's what I want to explore. The fact that most of the Nazis in season one are American Nazis really changes your perspective. It makes it harder to just point your finger at those people over there with their strange accents.”
That “very Philip K. Dick” idea is realized most fully in the character of John Smith, a Nazi officer who dispatches his unpredictable henchman, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), to retrieve the dangerous reel in Juliana's possession. A devoted patriot, Smith doesn't care for baseball: “It's a lazy sport compared to track or soccer.” But in a different world, Spotnitz argues, “He could have been an American hero if history had gone the other way.” He continues, “It's unsettling to think that could be the case. But I think it actually happens quite a lot. [In an alternate reality,] your essential character might be the same, but the path your life would take would be quite different based on different circumstances. We don't like to think about that.”
Also confronting viewers is a vision of American un-exceptionalism. Describing the novel as “a story where the good guys [not only] lose, but lost a long time ago,” Spotnitz recalls that he was first drawn to Dick's book as a college student for its insights into “living in this climate of defeat.” He adds, “It was haunting and made me think about how often that actually has happened in history. In America, particularly, we tend to think it can't happen here.”
That's why, he says, 1962 itself is so important as the show's chronological background: “The genius of [Dick's] setting it in 1962 is that the war is in the memory of most people who are alive. It's moving and disturbing because you've got a whole generation of men who are alive and fought and lost. And then you've got their children who are coming into the world, and it's the only world they've ever known. They don't remember what it was like before.”
On the show, most Americans have adjusted to life in the Greater Third Reich and the Japanese Pacific States; they even enjoy a two-hour plane ride from San Francisco to New York, the Nazi capital in the former United States. Greetings of Sieg heil are common on the East Coast, but there seems to be a particularly warm embrace of the colonizer's culture in the Pacific States. Juliana, for example, is introduced as a disciplined judo fighter. In contrast to the more straitlaced and ethnically uniform American Reich, the Japanese Pacific States feel more, well, American. (Executive producer Ridley Scott suggested Edward Hopper paintings and Blade Runner, respectively, as the visual basis for the Nazi and Japanese regions.)
“In the world of this show,” Spotnitz explains, “there are two Japans. There is the spiritual, Buddhist, beautiful Japan, represented by the [pacifist spy] Tagomi character [Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa], and then there's the really brutal, fascist Japan, represented by the [sadistic police inspector] Kido character [Joel de la Fuente]. It's pretty unfamiliar to us, living in the modern age, what the Japanese were like in the World War II era. There's a kind of homogeneity to the Nazi part of the world, but those two ideas of Japan are really at war with each other.”
As for social “undesirables,” the Jews have been mostly exterminated — excepting a few in hiding and Frank (Rupert Evans), Juliana's newly radicalized ex-boyfriend. Eugenics is the law of the land, as one Reich citizen shrugs about the drizzle of ash that floats above him: “They burn cripples, the terminally ill. Drag on the state.” Southern blacks' great postwar migration, meanwhile, goes west, not north. “In my version of this,” Spotnitz says, “African-Americans have been banished entirely from the Reich. You do see black people in the Neutral Zone and the Japanese Pacific States, where they're less strict about enforcing racial laws and cleansing. But we don't really explore, in season one, the fate of African-Americans. It's something I hope to do in season two.”
Spotnitz has many ideas for future seasons, including possibly “telescop[ing] out to see more of the planet,” as he has a very precise idea of what the Axis victory will have meant elsewhere. Promisingly, he says, he knows “where Juliana Crain is going and what her story is about and how it would end.”
That's a relief, considering how other ambitious series have struggled with multiseason plotting. Reflecting on his past work, in particular the alien-invasion backstory that The X-Files writers seemingly made up on the fly (and, notoriously, none too well), he says, “You have The X-Files and other shows with big mythologies, and I'm acutely aware of the dangers and how you end in a satisfactory fashion. So I wanted to know before I headed out on this journey where it was I was headed. Because you don't get to control television, whether you do one season or 10. But if you know what your character's journey is about, that's something you can control. Plotwise, this is an enormous series. It has almost limitless potential, because you've got the whole world to tell stories. But I think what makes it emotionally engaging is following Juliana's journey through this world. I do know how it ends. I just don't know when.”
As for the return of his old show, Spotnitz says, “I'm looking forward to everything about it. I would've loved to work on it, but it just wasn't possible. I was doing this, I think literally, exactly the same time as the X-Files reboot was shooting. We were in the same city. Sometimes The Man in the High Castle was shooting on the same city block.
“I've never stopped believing in The X-Files,” he continues. “I was in constant contact with the fans online. If you follow my Twitter feed going back to 2008, I was always telling them, 'Don't give up,' because I just knew, [Mulder and Scully are] such great characters, and David [Duchovny] and Gillian [Anderson] are so great in the roles. I always felt The X-Files could go on forever. I thought it was such a perfect idea for a television series. I can't wait to see it.”
The first episode of The Man in the High Castle is currently available to view on Amazon. The second episode is now accessible to Prime members only. The following eight episodes of the first season will be streamable for Prime members on Nov. 20.