Even though I know what The Man in the High Castle is about, nothing could prepare me for walking onto the set of the Amazon show. As our van pulled up to the location, my breath caught in my throat as I saw the set for the day: an enormous Nazi rally, taking place in the center of "New York City" (we were actually in Vancouver).
Hundreds of extras fill the "streets," hanging on Heinrich Himmler's every word as he swears in the new Fuhrer of North America. Nazi soldiers in Hugo Boss uniforms (the company that made the real SS's original uniforms) patrol the scene. This would have been a nerve-wracking scene in any environment, but our set visit came less than two months after August 2017's fatal Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this political climate, it made me want to throw up.
The Man in the High Castle, whose third season debuted October 5th on Amazon, is an alternate history in which the Axis powers win World War II and take over the United States; the West is ruled by Japan, the East ruled by Nazi Germany. A very slender "neutral zone" resides along the Rocky Mountains. But the word is that some mysterious film reels, kept a closely guarded secret by Hitler, show an "alternate" history, where the Allies win the war. Is this fiction, propaganda from the resistance? Or is there another dimension, another timeline, an alternate universe?
Bella Heathcote, who plays Nicole Dormer, also felt disturbed by the Nazi rallies.
"It can take your breath away when you walk onto these sets," she told a small group of journalists as we tried not to pay attention to the 10-foot swastikas on the horizon. "But it made me proud to be on this show in a way, because we are actually dealing with it, showing the pitfalls of demagoguery."
Nicole is a German-born filmmaker who, in the third season, moves to New York and becomes more independent. She actually gets to make films this season. Heathcote sees her character as a "next generation Leni Riefenstahl," who was a Nazi filmmaker responsible for directing propaganda films for the Third Reich.
"I think [Nicole's] filmmaking is a bit more avant-garde. I've got a different, more modern style, but that's definitely the path I'm following," Heathcote says of her character. "I think she's grown up in this world. The fact that she's Lebensborn [a real-life, state-supported program which encouraged German women to birth "racially pure and healthy" Aryan babies] allows her more freedom than most. The fact that she's wealthy, that her father is who he is, allows her more freedom than most. This year, she's really found a way to do her work and make films."
Rufus Sewell plays John Smith, a high-ranking, American-born member of the SS.
"Everything he has done has been an attempt — misguided or otherwise — to protect his family," Sewell says. "He's hitched himself to a wagon that is demanding bigger and bigger payments from him." Sewell is cautious not to give anything away about where Season 3 will take John Smith, but it does sound like the character is going to have doubts about which side he is on.
Smith's loyalty also comes into question when Sewell is asked about "Year Zero," in which the Germans are attempting to erase the last vestiges of American history. He is careful to remind us journalists that Year Zero is Himmler's idea, not Smith's.
"Himmler believes it is necessary to have a different attitude towards the idea of pre-Nazi propaganda," he says. "The reason I don't want to talk about that is because Smith's personal decision on that is something that has not yet been revealed." Hitler's alternate history film reels will also have a significant effect on Smith's character, something that Sewell promises will be uncovered throughout the course of Season 3.
Sewell also tells us that, in Season 1, he personally asked for a ban on "cute cardis."
"The idea of the pipe-smoking, cardigan-wearing Nazi who knows best could almost be an ironic postcard," he says in a rebuke to one journalist referring to the time frame as "Fuhrer Knows Best." Sewell wanted to make sure the attention stayed on a real character, rather than an idea. "You don't have to shift the 1950s Americana idea very far for it to work in tandem with Nazi ideology," he continues. "That world is primarily white, Anglo-Saxon, male-oriented. You don't have to change it much. It's practically already there for you. As an actor, you don't need to adjust your worldview much."
Production designer Drew Boughton backs up Sewell's statement, telling us that "mixing images from 1960s America and Nazism create this weird nightmare."
"The more almost normal it is, the creepier it is," says Boughton, while hoping that it will turn a mirror on today's society.
Despite the fact that it was a pleasant day on the Vancouver set, with no unscripted attacks, I feel relieved to leave the Nazis, the Hitler salutes, and the swastikas behind — if just for a short while.