Rufus Sewell: Policing an Alternative Universe in 'The Man in the High Castle'

FilmInk, 21 November 2016
By Gill Pringle

In the hit Amazon series, 'The Man in the High Castle', British actor Rufus Sewell plays an American Nazi tasked with hunting down Resistance members in an alternate history where the Axis powers won World War II. However, sometimes the similarities between that world and ours outweigh the differences, as we found out. Based on the 1962 novel by revered SF author, Philip K. Dick, 'The Man in the High Castle' takes place in a Balkanised America following an Axis victory in the Second World War. Its characters negotiate a far-right political climate where common freedoms are suppressed and minorities oppressed, while a dogged resistance movement wages a clandestine war against the Japanese (West Coast) and German (East Coast) occupiers. It sounds far fetched Ė or at least it did. Then we got the resurgence of One Nation, Brexit, Trump, and a world lurching farther to the right than it has since the mid 20th century.

ďItís crazy isnít it?Ē says Rufus Sewell, who plays SS ObergruppenfŁhrer John Smith, who ruthlessly weeds out resistance operatives in occupied New York City. ďAs far as Iím concerned, I donít like to point fingers left, right and centre because I think thatís for the audience to work out for themselves, but I think that where this show intersects with the world that we know is where it becomes very, very interesting. Itís not for me to say where it intersects and where it doesnít. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said ĎA mask tells you more than a faceí. Thereís something about the one-removed of alternate history which can shine a light about the world we live in.Ē

'The Man in the High Castle' has certainly resonated with viewers Ė it was the most watched original series in Amazonís history. Sewell cites the showís unique cross-genre nature as a key reason. ďItís not science fiction,Ē he says. ďItís something else, and I think theyíve been quite judicious in how quickly they spread out into other worlds because they donít want to dilute the currency of the world weíve set up. So itís kind of like a period drama, but the period has shifted into one that we didnít know. I think also the fact that theyíre examining very deeply what human beings are like. I think ultimately thatís what Philip K Dick wrote about, how do people just get on? They normalise the most horrific surroundings and normalise doing the most horrific things.Ē

For his part, Sewell is faced with the unenviable task of making a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi a sympathetic, or at least understandable, figure. ďMy responsibility is to humanise as much as I possibly can, because morally speaking I think itís more responsible to show to the best of your ability that the Nazis were human beings. Not because Iím asking sympathy for the Nazis but because if thereís any chance we can ever learn anything from anything that ever happens, we have to quit monsterising things. Ē

Heís apparently doing a good job of it, too, judging by some of the more outre fan reactions heís garnered. ďWell itís been strange. Iíve said this before but Iíve found myself in Hollywood being Sieg Heilíd through a coffee shop window by someone and he didnít look like a neo-Nazi. He looked like a kind of hipster writer with a bushy beard. I had my three year old girl with me and I kind of looked away and he came out, I think he thought the problem was I hadnít seen it, so he did it again! I think he thought that was funny. People have reacted quite strongly, theyíre quite interested and I think thereís something compelling about the conflict of the character. He isnít just one thing.Ē

As Smith is a new character created for the series and not one who appeared in the original novel, Sewell took it upon himself to do some deep research. ďI read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is an extraordinary book and I read Albert Speerís autobiography. Both of those books were fantastic, the first one just for the story of how a country could be turned, an entire country, nearly the whole world. Then Albert Speer, someone who was an intellectual, not naturally predisposed to be racist, he was an artist who ended up being Hitlerís architect and because he was such a good problem solver, he ended up being his armaments minister and fully signing up to it, but never being aware of what was happening to the Jews.Ē

In fact, Speerís level of guilt is a controversial subject in Holocaust studies, but Sewell elaborates. ďThere was a point in 1944 when someone came back from Poland and they said, and they were obviously very shaken, Ďif you ever get the chance to go to Auschwitz, donít goí. Speer said at that moment he decided not to ask that person what he meant. He had a sudden feeling of what might be going on and he made his choice never to ask. He was seeing Hitler every day and he never asked. From that moment he realised, in retrospect, over twenty years in Spandau prison, that was the moment he became truly culpable. Thatís the moral of the story, that most people in Germany were dancing. Most people had the opportunity to choose not to know, it was very easy to do.Ē

However, Sewell drew the line at reading Mein Kampf, Hitlerís own autobiography cum manifesto. ďNo, itís a crap book. Itís a shitty book, I wouldnít waste my time. You donít need to read much to know itís a bit of a bore. The ravings of a fucking lunatic. Iím not interested in that. But whatís interesting about Mein Kampf, having read about it, everything that he did, he tells you that he is going to do. Itís crazy that no one was onto it. He spelt out everything that he was going to do in Mein Kampf. It was just such a turgid piece of writing that I donít think anyone really read it. Everyone had a copy of it, they were giving it at weddings instead of a bible. It was crazy, but no one paid attention.Ē

Season One of The Man in the High Castle is streaming on Amazon now. Season 2 is due in December.

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