One of the hardest things about watching “The Man in the High Castle” is the swastikas. Worn casually as pins, strapped proudly to armbands, tastefully scattered around a seemingly ordinary American home — you see them everywhere. Turns out, it’s also one of the hardest parts of filming the show, as well.
“It’s jarring iconography, for sure,” D.J. Qualls told IndieWire during a recent press day for Season 2 of the Amazon series, which imagines what might have happened if the Axis powers, not the Allies, had won World War II. “When we shot the pilot, we were in Seattle and that was a day we had like 150 people in period costumes and Nazi uniforms walking around. And even though people could see that there were cameras around and trailers and that it was a movie or TV show, it tenses you. Peoples’ body language tenses because it’s scary iconography and we associate scary things with it — rightfully so.”
Those associations have only gotten scarier in the last month, as the 2016 Presidential election has brought with it a terrifying rise in hate crimes, a President-elect who has directly made threats against the freedom of the press and other civil liberties, as well as the increased visibility of groups known by a variety of labels — including neo-Nazis.
For much of the last 70 years, Nazis have served largely as cartoon villains in pop culture. But “The Man in the High Castle” is set in an alternate 1962 where it never stopped happening; where Nazi ideals of genetic purity still mean the systematic extermination of Jews and the physically handicapped. And while many of the characters find ways to rebel within this fascist environment, many others can be seen just going along with their daily lives.
While Season 2 was shot much earlier in the year, before the show gained its modern relevance, the cast proved more than game to engage with how the show might relate to today’s current political climate. In fact, when asked if it was hard to talk about the show in the context of today, Brennan Brown, who plays antiques dealer Childan, challenged the question. “That shouldn’t make it difficult,” he said. “That should make it something we want to talk about.”
Joel de la Fuente, who plays Chief Inspector Kido, agreed. “If we aspire to be a work of substance, or if we aspire to be considered an artistic endeavor, then when we’re successful, we should provoke dialogue and conversation,” he said.
Working Within The Bubble
For everyone involved, the potential impact of the election on how the series might be perceived wasn’t a major factor during production. “I shoot the show in a complete bubble,” Qualls said. “I don’t think about this stuff. I’m there to do my job and tell the truth of my character. I think about what’s for lunch. I do all that stuff because it is our job. I mean we’re storytellers, but if you internalize too much it will take you down with it. And it’s hard to be too afraid of a Nazi officer when his mic wire is showing.”
Rupert Evans, who plays budding resistance fighter Frank Frink, hoped that viewers might find the show to be an escape, rather than a commentary. “When they watch this, they can immerse themselves in the lives of these people. I hope that people can absorb and escape from their world if that’s what they want, and just watch this new world and these characters and how they deal with their lives in these different environments they’re in.”
But how possible was that, really? As mentioned, such evocative iconography still makes an impact.
“When you’re shooting on a set, after the eighth or ninth hour, you’re joking around because you’re working together on a scene,” de la Fuente said. “But if you’re outside on location in a public place and people are walking around with swastikas on their jackets, then you’re often reminded very quickly.”
And now, in today’s new context, it’s doubly tough to escape. “I think this show is serving now almost a different purpose in some ways, because of what’s going on here,” executive producer Isa Dick Hackett said. “I never expected that. I never imagined that. I don’t think any of us imagined the election would go this way, certainly not while we were making this. But I think it’s more timely than ever — literally.”
A Book About Today, Written in 1962
For many, the show’s origins in Philip K. Dick’s novel was a touchstone, while also broadening out its impact. “I think the truth is that fascism is something that’s existed before this book was written,” star Alexa Davalos said. “And while this book was being written and ever since — and, sadly, now — ultimately this is an exploration of every single human being trying to survive this experience. So I think it’s always going to be prevalent.”
Luke Kleintank, who plays Nazi agent Joe Blake, had a cynical read on the idea: “Human beings write history, and history repeats itself. So I think you can see the mirroring aspect from this world to our world.”
Brown, however, hesitated to draw too direct a comparison between “High Castle” and our modern world, noting, “I have trouble with drawing parallels between what’s happening in our country in the real world and what’s happening in our show because they’re two different things way different things. Our show is not about the usurpation of American values; it’s an alternate history about what would have happened had World War II gone a different way.”
“But the reactions are the same, because they’re human reactions,” Qualls responded.
“And the rhetoric is similar,” de la Fuente said.
“That’s true,” Brown agreed. “The genius of the set-up of the book is that it can comment on any socio-economic structure. The abuse of power and the stripping away of human dignity and the stripping away of human rights is something that we as a human species will always face.”
Indeed, the alternate America we see in “High Castle” is an America under foreign rule, far from the super-power status that defined its role in the second half of the 20th century. And for Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who plays reserved Trade Minister Tagomi, that brings with it a certain sort of value. “I can’t really recollect when America has been put in a situation to think of itself a little bit more humbled, and look at not being the super-victors,” he said. “I think we’ve needed that wake-up.”
What did Kleintank hope viewers get from the show? “I hope they see that the America of today isn’t everything it’s thought to be.”
Hackett was initially a bit reluctant to say how, exactly, she felt about the way the current political climate had changed the conversation around the show. “I really truly don’t want to alienate viewers, because I think it’s an important show for everyone, regardless of what side [they’re on],” she said. “I just think about the fact that the novel is an anti-fascist tale. It’s about freedom and democracy, and it’s about how people, at least in that world, were defeated and they start to accept things and normalize things. In our world now, those same things worry me. I worry about certain kinds of rhetoric. I worry about the ‘them vs. us’ dividing people.”
De la Fuenta noted that the show might be capable of counterbalancing that last problem. “If we can’t civilly sit and have dialogue about our real lives right now, then maybe we can through the characters on the show — in which case what we could do would be of tremendous social service,” he said.
Beyond creating those conversations, though, executive producer David Zucker also saw the value of the series in asking viewers to look within. “You awake each day into trying to understand: ‘What is the reality that I’m living in, and what is it that I can do to better affect the lives of the people I care about and the world that I’m living in?’ Those questions have never been as immediate in my lifetime as they are today, and what I think has always been so alluring, from the first time we started talking about this project, is you’re really challenging the audience to do the same thing within this story.”
“What choices would I make to protect my family and what price would I pay for the freedom that I hold dear?” he added. “We’re looking at a time in history when there’s the normalization and the acceptance of certain things that under different times and different circumstances, one might have great objection to. So what do we do personally to try to affect those things? That is really what the story of this series is all about.”
“The Man in the High Castle” Season 2 premieres Friday on Amazon.