What If the Nazis Won? Inside Amazons The Man in the High Castle

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The Man in the High Castle, the new Amazon series that launches Friday, imagines a world in which Hitler beat the U.S. to the atomic bomb. It’s easily the best new drama of 2015.

I think probably one of the reasons they had a hard time getting it made all those years is that its very dangerous material, Spotnitz adds. Its potentially very offensive.

What if the Nazis won the war?

What if Hitler beat the U.S. to the atomic bomb and dropped it on Washington, D.C.?

What if the Axis powers then divided the U.S. and occupied their new territories: Greater Nazi Reich in the east and the Japanese Pacific States in the west?

What if?

The alternative history presented in The Man in the High Castle, Amazons ambitious new drama series based on Philip K. Dicks novel, is provocative just at face value. But as its characters alternately settle into and rebel against the reality of this hypothetical, a world in which New York is occupied by Nazis and San Francisco is under Japanese rule, the show becomes downright ghastly.

The entire series arrives ready to be binged on Friday. It is easily the most unsettlingbut also the most interestingnew drama of a dismal fall season cluttered with high-concept dramas with little actual intrigue.

Amazon has made a tradition of putting the pilots for its original series online for the public to rate and review prior to ordering them to series. The Man in the High Castle is the services highest-rated pilot in its short history.

I think one guess is that we still live in an age of fear right now, creator Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) says, assessing what it was about the show that yielded such a response. I think were all still living in a post-9/11 world. To see how people deal with nightmare situations and survive feels really relevant.

Man in the High Castles alternative history is set in the 1960s, but Spotnitz was hyperaware of its potential to resonate today while writing it. Its about people who are trying to stay human in an inhuman world, he says. Theres so much going on now that is terribly inhuman. What can you do? Can you change things?

Isa Dick Hackett, Philip Dicks daughter, had actually been trying to shepherd an adaptation of Dicks novel to television for almost nine years. At one point, Spotnitzs two-hour pilot was being made for Syfy, who ultimately passed.

Excessive cost overshadowed an intriguing premise. Not only were there three worlds that had to be createda Reich version of New York, a Japanese-infused San Francisco, and a neutral territory in the middle of the country called Canon Citybut it was a period piece, which is always more expensive. But beyond the sheer scope of it, Evans jokes, I think a lot of networks wouldnt put Nazis on TV.

If we really want to show the horror, we have to humanize, he goes on. Its really easy to say all Nazis are zombies, or werewolves, or aliens from another planet. But theyre not. In fact, once the first episode passes and you get to know John, he endears himself to the viewer. You actually like him, and maybe root for him.

It messes with your head, Spotnitz says, before cautioning, I dont want humanizing these characters to be mistaken for endorsing these characters. Thats what I mean when I say this is a risky show.

As they say, with high risk comes high reward, something The Man in the High Castle certainly attests to. Even taking the terrifying circumstances out of the equation, theres something endlessly fascinating about entertaining the question of what if?

Its such a fine line with history going one way or the other, Evans says. You realize how we are just at the whims of that. We have really no control. We think we do and we think were in control of our own destiny, but perhaps were really not.

An alternative history in which the Nazis won is chilling, but its effects would reverberate wider than we could even imagine. Life as we know it would be different. Even on a pure entertainment level, The Beatles wouldnt exist. Elvis Presley wouldnt exist.

Actually, I had a great idea I tried to pitch the writers, Kleintank says, lightening the mood a bit. Joes walking down the street in New York City and theres this young guy on the sidewalk singing and I give him a quarter. Whats your name? Joe asks. Elvis.

What if?

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