|Polish priests in Bydgoszcz, Poland, September, 1939|
Rounded up to be shot. See here
TV steals your soul. To watch TV, you don't have to bathe or dress or leave your house. Studies link extensive TV watching to depression, obesity, loneliness, social isolation, and academic failure. It astounds me that people pay money to watch advertisements.
I don't have a TV and have not had one for most of my life.
I keep hearing, though, that we are living through a second Golden Age of television. Critics say that the best TV shows, including The Sopranos and Mad Men, are better than what can be seen in movie theaters.
The Sopranos' sex, violence, and glamorization of the Mafia disgusted me. Watching fat Italians splatter-murder each other in front of naked strippers with artificial breasts and then breaking to gorge on capocolla was not enhancing my life; I live in New Jersey; I can watch that for free. Mad Men was way too cool and stylized for me. I can get my fix from Jon Hamm's insane physical beauty by looking at a still photo – I must confess that I didn't get much more of a rush from watching him act.
I recently visited a home with TV and decided to check in on the latest iteration of the glam Nazi: The Man in the High Castle. We know that power is attractive, and we know that Nazis deployed expert marketers and design teams, from Goebbels to Leni Riefenstahl to Hugo Boss. That combo have made the Nazis fav film fare ever since. After Otto charitably tutored me in how to operate the new-fangled TV interface, I tapped into The Man in the High Castle, thinking I'd give it ten minutes of my time, and only as an author interested in how pop culture packages Nazism.
To my surprise, I quickly became addicted. I had planned on going to see movies during the holiday season. Now is when the awards-magnet films, like La La Land and Manchester by the Sea, are released. Instead I became that dreaded creature, a couch potato in sweat pants, my butt glued to a well-worn crater in the upholstery in front of the boob tube.
The Man in the High Castle is inspired by a 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, but it departs from the book significantly. In the Amazon series, the Axis powers have won WW II. The Nazis got the bomb first and nuked DC. Nazis control the eastern US; Japanese control the west, and there is a neutral zone in between, in the Rocky Mountains.
The viewer is jolted by familiar American imagery branded with the spoor of the new overlord. The stars and stripes feature a swastika or the Japanese sun disk. Students attend a high school named after Fritz Julius Kuhn, leader of the German American Bund. The pledge of allegiance swears fealty to Hitler, who is still alive in 1962. White girls are prostitutes for Japanese men. They bow servilely. An antiques dealer sells American memorabilia to Japanese collectors. America has been reduced to a conqueror's decorative knickknack, like a taxidermed kill.
There is a resistance, made up of native-born Americans who carry out limited operations. The resistance's work is built around trafficking film. That's right – film. The film footage depicts alternate realities. In one of those alternate realities, America won the war. The viewer is confused and wonders if this MacGuffin will pay off or if it will all go splat in the final episode, as happened on Lost. Maybe we will discover that everyone has actually been dead this whole time.
Anyone making any art that addresses Nazism or its Axis allies like Japan has to make a decision: how grim do you go?
At one end of the spectrum is the film The Grey Zone, a film that almost no one has seen. It takes place inside Auschwitz. The main characters are sonderkommandos, the Jews who processed other Jews' corpses after their deaths. No big spoiler here: everyone dies. Again, no one wants to see this movie.
On the other end of the spectrum you have a film like Casablanca. In this classic the Nazis biggest crime is forcing café patrons to listen to the clunky German anthem, "Die Wacht am Rhein." In Casablanca, everyone is well fed, perfectly coiffed, and very soigné. You can practically smell the cologne. Most important, real opportunities for real heroism abound. No such luck in the slaughterhouse that is The Grey Zone.
Given what I saw on The Sopranos, I assumed that "Golden Age of TV" appellation equaled "graphic sex and violence." One of the things that astounds me most about TMITHC is that it is G-rated. There are torture, seppuku, mass shooting, and other scenes, but they are handled the way a 1940s director would handle such scenes. The audience is informed of what is about to happen, and minimal cues inform the viewer that it has happened.
In the opening show, a resistance leader, we are told, is beaten to death. This is not presented anywhere near as graphically as similar scenes were in the 2016 film Anthropoid, about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czech and Slovak assassins. In TMITHC, the resistance fighter is tied up and shown bruised and dirty. It is clear what has happened to him and what will happen to him, but we don't have to cringe at every blow.
I've watched many Holocaust-related films. TMITHC created a very subtle scene that will stay with me for a long time. A suspected resistance fighter's sister, niece and nephew are arrested. Axis investigators have discovered that the family has one Jewish grandfather. The woman is a lovely young mother beautifully attired in vintage early sixties fashions. Her two children are attractive but real. The authorities shuffle her and her children into a waiting room. There is a TV playing cartoons and toys for the children to play with.
You can see why the mother would be anxious – the authorities are scary and officious. She is given no reason for being there. But the waiting room is rather like a doctor's waiting room, so one might assume that her nervousness is no more grounded than the nervousness we feel in a doctor's waiting rom.
As the episode progresses and advances other character's storylines, it cuts, again and again, back to the mother and her children. The children are growing increasingly bored and cranky. She is growing increasingly terrified. Eventually she gazes upward and notices the vents in the ceiling. They look like many an innocent ceiling vent, but given the context – a Jewish woman detained without explanation in an Axis-controlled American dystopia – those ceiling vents take on a horrific menace. The woman walks toward the door and attempts to open it. She can't open it. It is locked. And that is the last we see of her. We know exactly what descended from those innocuous, industrial-looking ceiling vents after the woman and her children left our sight.
In addition to its g-rated, 1940s style sex and violence, as opposed to more graphic choices in how to depict sex and violence, TMITHC has chosen a 1940s earnestness. The Sopranos was an ironic show. The viewer was encouraged to laugh at its Mafiosi. "Did you ever think what a coincidence it is that Lou Gherig died of Lou Gherig's disease?" a murderer asks. Ha, ha, ha. These Jersey Wop pimps, drug-dealers and killers are just so colorful, just so funny. The pinky rings, the malapropisms, the loud suits. Sopranos viewers were allowed to wallow in their taste for graphic sex and violence, and to float above it all, as if the Mafia would never deal drugs or strong-arm businessmen in their neighborhood.
I've watched a bit over half of TMITHC and I have not been allowed one single ironic chuckle as an escape from the onscreen dystopia. Everything is so earnest. The deaths are just sad, not sad plus stylized, not sad plus funny. When civilians are rounded up randomly at an outdoor market, separated from their screaming children, stood up against a wall and shot, that is just simply a sad and scary thing. No escape hatch into humor or glitzy camera moves. The resistance fighters are the people we would be if our nation were suddenly hijacked by fascists.
Speaking of which, google "The Man in the High Castle" and "Trump" and find a plethora of think pieces from the New York Times, The Atlantic, National Public Radio, and others. I'm not making the news here, just reporting it.
So, I love the 1940s-movie-style absence of graphic sex and violence, and the utter earnestness I have seen in TMITHC. But I love this series' aesthetics.
I was jarred when I heard that Amazon was calling itself a studio. Again, I'm classic Hollywood movie fan. When I think "studio" I think of a cigar-chomping Polish-Jewish immigrant presiding over a huge lot full of props, costumes, dialogue coaches and soundstages. I know that's an outdated model, but it still astounds me that a book seller can apply the word "studio" to itself and produce something as rich as TMITHC.
An example: one of the main characters, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) is chatting with a blonde in a hotel lobby. Behind him moves a bellhop. The bellhop is wearing one of those flat-topped, chin-strap caps. The bellhop is in the frame for mere seconds, and he performs no role in the scene, except to add to depth and detail. Watching TMITHC, I can't help but wonder at how much money, attention, and effort is up on the screen.
The visual effects are stunning. Each episode begins with a silvery, black-and-white montage of the Axis takeover of the US. There are parachute drops, nuclear blasts, and rockets, interspersed with Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty. Over this montage, in a whispery, lisping voice, a woman sings a haunting version of Edelweiss. Watching this montage fills me with dread and rage. I want to rescue my beloved homeland from the bad guys. A feeling I suspect I will experience more and more after January 20, 2017.
As much as I like TMITHC, and that is very much, I think the alternate time line / time travel aspect of the film is one gimmick too many. "What if the Axis had won WW II and the Germans and Japanese took over the US" is gimmick, is MacGuffin, enough, for me. "What if the Axis had won … and what if films could be used to travel around in time" is just way too much gimmick. But hey.
What significance does The Man in the High Castle have to the Bieganski stereotype as outlined in my book of the same title?
First, and if you pay any attention at all to onscreen treatments of WW II this will not surprise you at all, many viewers' hands-down favorite character on the show is not a Jewish or other victim of the Nazis. It is not a heroic and self-sacrificing resistance fighter. No. The standout, "I can't help myself I love him" write-a-letter-to-the-actor asking-him-how-he-manages-to-humanize-such-a-difficult-character audience favorite is a Nazi.
Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith. He is very handsome (oh those cheekbones), the smartest guy in the room, superbly well-dressed (thank you Hugo Boss), and he loves his family so much he would do anything to protect them from harm.
Handsome, glamorous, admirable Nazis are a staple of WW II in pop culture. I've written about the Sexy Nazi phenomenon several times on this blog. See here here here here. But really you should read Bieganski better to understand why the sexy Nazi is such a staple.
A second point, also related to the Bieganski stereotype.
In the episodes I've seen so far, and I have not seen every one, there is no mention of Slavic people. Nazis victimize Jews, yes. Nazis victimize handicapped people, yes. Nazis don't like black people, yes. And that's it.
And it's actually worse than that.
Fans say that in Dick's book, the Nazis have realized their Generalplan Ost (please read about Generalplan Ost if you think Slavs were never targeted by the Nazis.) See the map, below. Eastern Europe's Slavic countries have been erased from the map, in Dick's dystopia. Slavs have been the subject of the Nazis' planned genocide, ethnic cleansing, and enslavement.
The murder of millions of people. Their enslavement and erasure. Apparently not "sexy" enough for Amazon producers. Not even included in Amazon's TMITHC. Think about that. Really. Think about it.
I recently reviewed Richard Weikart's new book Hitler's Religion for FrontPage magazine. You can read the review here.
One person said that by mentioning the suffering of Slavic people under Nazism, I was "ignoring the suffering of Jews." By the way, the person who made this accusation is a Christian, and a woman who rushed to my defense, and to defend mention of the suffering of non-Jewish Slavs under Nazism, is herself Jewish.
Please note that: to mention the suffering of non-Jewish Slavs under Nazism is tantamount to ignoring the suffering of Jews.
People taking issue with my mention of Slavic victimization under the Nazis reminded me that the Crusaders committed atrocities against Jews. I was reminded that Jews were expelled from England. I was reminded that the Soviets were officially atheist and not all the Soviets who died under Nazism were devout Christians.
That German Crusaders committed atrocities against Jews – during the same era when German crusaders were committing atrocities against Slavs and other Baltic peoples – does not change the fact that the Nazis victimized non-Jewish Slavs. That England expelled Jews in the Middle Ages does not change the fact that the Nazis victimized Slavs. How is it that mention of the Nazi victimization of Slavs is some pox outbreak that must be quelled with mention of bad things that English and German people did in the Middle Ages?
Glamorous Nazis. Slavic people never having been victimized by Nazis. Again, I haven't seen every episode of The Man in the High Castle, but that's what I've seen so far. Those who have seen every episode can correct me if I have things wrong.
Polonia, we have a problem. We must do a better job of telling our story. For my take on what's going wrong in our leadership on this question of telling our own story, and what needs to be done to set it right, please see here.
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