Rufus Sewell in The man in the high Castle
At the end of July, before leaving for England, I finished watching the two seasons of The man in the high castle, based on a dystopian novel by P.K.Dick and set in a world where The Axis powers have won World War II.
I think it is a good series, the settings are very carefully designed, the costumes, too in this strange world that looks stuck in the 1930’s; not a great one, I’d say, and the weakness lies in the younger generation of characters: both in the way they are written, and in the actors that were chosen to interpret them. With the exception of Alexa Davalos (Juliana Crain) they are just just good looking young people who wouldn’t manage to look seriously involved in something complex even if they spent their lives trying (think of Luke Kleintank/Joe Blake, or Rupert Evans/Frank Frink). Which doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate good looks, only, actors should know how to act.
While I was watching season 1 I checked the novel’s plot to see what the differences were. It seems the main difference was the introduction of a new character, Obergruppenführer John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell. He is the best thing in the show.
Smith is a loyal Nazi who embraced the new regime risen out of the ashes of the United States, at the end of World War II. He keeps the medals he received for defending democracy not because he secretly wishes it still existed, but to reming himself how wrong he was. He is a loving husband who believes women have the most important role in the world, that of producing children and making a home. You know he loves his family so much he could kill for them, because he actually does. He is intelligent, brave and totally ruthless. He claims he never repents the blood that was shed to get rid of enemies of the state, and that he would do it all over again. We see him throwing a young officer off a balcony with not so much as a wink just because he knows something he shouldn’t know.
In fiction and films featuring Nazi characters they are safely black and white for us: they are more or less ideological, more or less raving, but you do not have to ask yourself questions about them. You know where they stand, because historically, the Nazi regime was one of the few irredimably evil realities in history. You may have non-SS characters who are shown as good men who have to go to war because that is what soldiers do (Christopher Plummer in The sound of music comes to mind) but whatever the moral stance of each character, the spectator is usually safely told how to feel quite clearly.
Obergruppenführer Smith is a surprising character of unexpected complexity, which is of a moral, not a narrative kind: a good man who does evil because he believes his cause is just, and at the same time an evil man whose love for his family redeems him in part in our eyes. Through him we are made to have at least some emotional warmth towards his side, which puts us in an uncomfortable and unusual situation, as we are never allowed to forget that he is part of evil. That does not happen with Joe Black, instead: his mixed loyalties only look like confusion, as if he were a teenager experimenting and blundering.
John Smith instead is a loyal, ideologically fervent servant of the Third Reich; He is also a hero: season two ends with him thwarting an attempt to start World War III and receiving the highest honours for that in Berlin – he, an American with the commonest of names. It is a scene which, I’m afraid, must have become a feel-good video for American Neo-Nazis:
(All rights belong to the producers of the series).
You only need these few moments in which Rufus Sewell does almost nothing to see the great actor he is: the way his often impassive expression alters slightly but visibly, here; he is the common man of uncommon qualities we have met so often in American cinema and tv, beloved by his family, honoured by his community. Which happens to be the Empire of Evil.