"The Man in the High Castle" © Amazon Studios
by Jan Niklas Meier
What, if? What, if things had turned out differently, if, for instance, Germany had won WWII? If even perhaps Hitler was alive in the 1960th. A terrifying idea, without a doubt. But yet one that has been answered again and again. In series adaptation of Dick’s classic novel “The Man in the High Castle”, Amazon prime customers have recently been shown a nightmarish America that was split by the winning Axis powers of Germany and Japan. In Tarantino’s famous contrafactual historical design, a famous group of basterds spares the US of such destiny, when spectacularly assassinating the NS-administration in a small French movie theatre. No European production has reached the cult status of “Inglorious Basterds” yet. But genre insiders consider Timo Vuorensola’s majorly crowd-founded project “Iron Sky” a postmodern classic already: without further ado, the finish director ships his Nazis to moon. Here, they remain undetected, await the end of the war and plan their triumphal return to earth. Apparently, National Socialism is a returning motive in speculative cinema with a large spectrum from demanding alternative-history-drama to fake-blood-splattering movie-orgies or esoteric mystery-complots.
Things might as well be different
Things might as well be different. This famous quote from Robert Musil’s novel “the man with no qualities” is a perfect example of the alternative-history-genre as a whole. Cultural criticism – we find that phrase in sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s writing – is possible, merely to the one who questions what is in existence and is thus prepared to think differently. As early as in the 1960th, a movie was filmed in Great Britain revealing the possibilities of such contrafactual narratives. In “It Happened Here“, we find NS-regimes not as a problem passé, the ultimate German failure, but as a de-historized phenomenon with capabilities to manifest itself in any given society in time. On rough 16 mm film format, teenage Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo show a fascist Great Britain, ruled by the British Union of Fascists and their police authorities, the Blackshirts. The movie refers to an actual political movement, as that political party really existed; it was established in England in 1932 and prohibited eight years later. Fascism in “It Happened Here” is illustrated as universal in its eventuality. Life under such dictatorship appears to the spectator as his plausible personal fate.
„Fatherland”, a TV adaptation to Robert Harris’ novel of the same name, is also impressing with a contrafactual, dystopic historical design. In year 1964, Nazis have won the war. Hitler is still in power, Germania was built and in Berlin, Beatles posters hang besides the ones, advertising the Führer’s 75th birthday. While being in diplomatic negotiations for resumption of German ties to the US, the movie’s protagonists suddenly stumble across sources, proving that six million Jews, reportedly emigrated from Germany, were in fact killed. “Fatherland” utilizes the horror of holocaust as a thrilling element. In order to even enhance the dread, original footage of different concentration camps is shown.
„The Man in the High Caste” relocates the plot to the US grounds, split between the winning Axis powers of Germany and Japan. Only inside the Rocky Mountains, there is a neutral zone, sort of a buffer between territories. There are giant swastika banners on Times Square and people greet each other “Sieg Heil!”. In Berlin, the NS-elite awaits the Führer’s nearing death, he tries to hide his Parkinson’s disease from public. Of course, a main element of the story is the mandatory fight of good and evil. But this plot is not the most central element. In “The Man in the High Castle”, a contrafactual horror scenario is designed – in a radical way – that overlaps two worlds. Fascism seems to have won over the American Dream. Human values of western societies are suffocated, not only metaphorically, but literally, when a Jewish family is gassed in Japanese prison.
Mutants, Werewolves, Zombies
Contrary to alternative-history’s world-designs, that play a game with history, but are still embedded in reality, Science fiction and Horror movies generate speculative and supernatural scenarios. Here, esoteric, secret societies stroll around and covertly control the NS regime or evil scientists of genius and madness that release either Nazi-zombies, Nazi-mutants or a combination of both on society. Some drifting to the occult is inherent in NS-ideology. For instance, The SS presented themselves as an order, ultimately searching for some wonder weapon, that would bring the final victory. The superiority of the Arian race was propagated and demonstrated by references to Germanic mythology. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that in “Hellboy”, Nazis open a gate to hell on just this mission of finding a super weapon. And if you’re unable to win over supernatural powers, you might as well try to breed a super soldier, coming along as overpoweringly strong but overpoweringly stupid cliché Arian or as a werewolf – the first is presented to us by “SS-Doomtrooper”, the latter by “Horrors of War”. In 2007, Rob Zombie reached a parodistic zenith, when in fake movie-trailer “Werewolf Women of the SS”, he showcased the complete repertoire of Nazi motives: the mad scientist, sadistic concentration-camp guards, striking swastikas, topless women, classical music and so on. Hereby, the musician and director goes deep into the Nazisploitation genre, a cinematic effort of merging National Socialism and Sadism. It primarily arose in 60th and 70th Italian cinema, but also partly driven by US cinema and it produced concoctions, such as “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS”.
If we take a look at the Nazi infantry of the Horror and Science-fiction genre, and the way they bluntly pursue their bloody business, they are easily associated with another genre stereotype: the zombie. So, what’s more convenient than merging those two? This approach may be illustrated by 2009 Norwegian horror-comedy “Dead Snow”. The plot is easily summarized and a typical representative of the genre. A group of students travels to a remote cabin in the mountains for some fun. Unfortunately, a battalion of undead Nazis sits and waits in the snow, just around the corner. They guard a treasure of gold, clearly reminding us of the “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Of course, the inevitable happens: the Nazi-zombies exercise a true mass slaughtering with the students. For this, director Tommy Wirkola may have had to carry a couple of buckets of fake blood into the mountains. When zombie-colonel Herzog and his henchmen rage among the young women and men, “Dead Snow” quotes not just one classic of trash-horror. The nerdy film-geek wears a “Braindead”-shirt in proper style. Later on, it is proven, that one is familiar with the early works of Peter Jackson and the famous lawn-mover sequence – for the absence of lawn with some courageous help of a snowmobile. It get’s ironically political, when one of the students throws himself against the approaching undead with crossed hammer and sickle.
Does Cinema beats History?
Towards the end, we shall focus on the commercial success of Nazi movies; on Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds”. In a time, when Hollywood does very serious cinema, if facing National Socialism, this movie comes along with – as movie publicist Georg Seeßlen puts it – a “strange mixture of pop-surface and inner passion” (Georg Seeßlen), telling its revenge story of overflowing violence. In Nazi-occupied France and led by a US-officer, Tarantino has his group of soldiers of Jewish descent hunt for Nazi scalps. The Basterds, that’s the name of the unit, leave bloody traces of swastikas, scratched into people’s foreheads and shattered bodies, maltreated by the Bear Jew’s baseball bat. The swastika on the forehead may be interpreted as an answer to the Star of David, the scalping as bonus by the Indian roots of their leader. The Basterd’s approach is bloody, the guerilla force appears as an impersonalized Jewish adoption of NS-orgies of violence. The movie is brutal, but gets away with it – who would dare to claim something was going too far, if addressed against Nazis? Tarantino himself once said, the movie is to be regarded as a win of cinema against the Nazis. This interpretation seems evident, considering that the place, where the NS-regime gets slaughtered in the end, is a movie theater. But some critics claimed to find more in this. Hitler is not treated with a failed assassination or a suicide. In the end all Nazis are truly dead, even before the Basterds fire a hail of bullets into their burning corpses. Goebbels is executed and – in consequent continuance of the revenge motive - payed back for his propaganda. Despite all these interpretations, the presumption may be imposed that no moral message is being communicated. Tarantino may have simply tried to direct a movie as perfectly esthetical portrait of violence. In “die Zeit”, Jens Jessen called this a bloody joke. The interested reader may be invited to find his own solution to this problem.
Whatever one may think of this, Nazis are a recurring motive in speculative-fiction movies. Needless to say, this comment only assesses a tiny fraction of its varying manifestations. The versatility of the motive should be apparent, anyway. The large spectrum reaches from moronic antagonists, being brutally killed in clear conscience, to the culture-critical character of “It Happened Here”.
translated by Malte Bertram