Visions of Alt-Berlin in “Man in the High Castle” (no spoilers)

A condensed version of this article appears on The Atlantic’s CityLab.

When used judiciously, establishing shots are one of the most useful techniques in film and television. As the curtain opens on a new scene, a director is able to convey a whole range of important information—the when and where of the setting, as well as the overall mood and moment that we are about the enter—all through a single short shot. Such is the power of imagery.

The first season of Amazon’s new serial adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative-history thriller, “The Man in the High Castle,” has already made excellent use of this technique, often lowering the viewer into scenes of Nazi-occupied New York or Japanese-occupied San Francisco with shots of key buildings or landmarks. We know and love these cities and we immediately recognize these places—only to be jarred by the superimposition of the familiar (Times Square, the Golden Gate Bridge) with new “alt-history” signifiers (swastikas galore; Rising Sun banners; propaganda on the billboards). In a similar vein, the show’s haunting credit sequence—one of the best in recent memory—uses both landmarks and maps to set the stage and orient the viewer. Planners and urban designers would be wise to take note: these short segments beautifully illustrate the ways history, memory, landscape, politics, mapping, and meaning are interwoven in the ways we “make sense of place.”

Early in the second season, however, these shots take on an entirely new—and quite horrifying—relevance, especially for urban planners who know their history. As the story traces back to the corridors of power in the Fatherland, we get our first establishing shot of the Nazi capital of Berlin, looking east past the famous Siegessäule (Victory Column), towards the Brandenburg Gate.

The column itself is nothing surprising: visitors to Berlin today will find it there in the Großer Stern (Great Star) rotary, although when it was originally erected in the 1870s it was much closer to the center of town. In 1939, the 59-meter column was relocated to this spot as the opening salvo in a massive urban planning assault on the historic city led by Hitler’s First Architect, Albert Speer. (In the process, the column was also made 7.5 meters taller through the insertion of additional stone drums; as will become obvious, size mattered quite a lot of Hitler and Speer.)

Speer’s plan—developed in close collaboration with Hitler, who understood the nationalistic power of architecture and urban design—was to transform Berlin: the old city was to be reborn as Welthauptstadt Germania (Germania, World Capital), the seat of the new empire. (The location titles of the show chose to stick with “Berlin,” presumably to give the audience a clearer real-world referent; or perhaps, in deference to his uneasy truce with Japan in the show, the Führer is holding off on claiming total world domination for the moment.)

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Blow-Up: the Filmerick

As described previously, I’ve been exploring a new medium, the “filmerick” (limericks to summarize great films). Over the weekend my daughter and I were fortunate to catch a special screening of BLOW-UP at the Harvard Film Archive, and here’s what I came up with:

BLOW-UP (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
With all of its visual glories,
And behavior abhorrent to Tories,
Mr. Antonioni,
has certainly shown he’s
proficient in shaggy-dog stories.

The film itself is great, of course: a wonderful, touchingly sad meander through 1960s London, ushering in what would later be recognized as a golden age of the cinema of urban alienation and the search for meaning amid the chaos of modern life.

I was especially moved by how beautifully Antonioni filmed both the perfectly balanced “design world” (fashion shoots, bohemian artist “live-work space”) and the eclectic clutter of “real London” (crowds and demonstrations, junk shops, construction sites). Both draw you in – part of the mystery implied in every shot – and one leaves the film with an appreciation for the eye’s uncanny ability to frame and capture the art all around us. (Although whether we can every truly grasp and understand what we capture is another story altogether…)

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“Filmericks” from my “City in Film” class

This semester I’ve been teaching a new course on “The City in Film” in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. As the syllabus describes:

Using film as a lens to explore and interpret various aspects of
the urban experience in both the U.S. and abroad, this course
presents a survey of important developments in urbanism from 1900
to the present day, including changes in technology, bureaucracy,
and industrialization; immigration and national identity; race,
class, gender, and economic inequality; politics, conformity, and
urban anomie; planning, development, private property,
displacement, sprawl, environmental degradation, and
suburbanization; and more.

My plan is to vary the films shown in the course from year to year, but to always include a balance of classics from the history of film, an occasional experimental or avant-garde film, and a number of more recent, mainstream movies. This year’s lineup includes the obligatory (and excellent) METROPOLIS, an NYC romp in ON THE TOWN, a touch of photo-realistic noir in THE NAKED CITY, some psycho-geographic dérive in LONDON, and much more — 13 films in all.

To help liven the class up a bit (as if all these great city films isn’t enough!), and also to help us all keep the films straight, I’ve challenged the class to come up with limericks for each film. Writing a few of my own, I think I may have invented a new artform: the “filmerick.” Here’s what I came up with for the first three films:

METROPOLIS (Fritz Lang, 1926)

Joh Frederson’s city is smart,
The brains tell the brawn when to start.
       But inspired by Hel,
       The workers rebel:
The HEAD and the HANDS need a HEART.

BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A CITY (Walther Ruttman, 1927)

Made from hundreds of meters of stock,
And covering block upon block,
       This film, like a rhyme,
       Shows a town keeping time:
BERLIN is one big cuckoo clock.

MODERN TIMES (Charles Chaplin, 1936)

With all of its plot twists and swerves,
This film, like a clarion, serves
       To give the impression
       That the Great Depression
Did a hell of a job on our nerves.

Stay tuned for more…

Hurdy Gurdy (Daniel Seideneder and Daniel Pfeiffer, 2011)

In World on a Wire (reviewed previously), Rainer Werner Fassbinder explored the possibility of creating a miniature world through the use of a computer. In Hurdy Gurdy, a wonderful new short film from a German and Estonian collaboration, we get to enjoy the ways that the camera itself can render our real-world in apparent miniature (although I suspect a computer played a part as well…), giving us an entirely new and delightfully playful perspective on everyday scenes of urban life.

The film — all of four minutes long — uses stop-motion photography along with a technique that either is, or perhaps simulates, what is known as “tilt-shift” photography. The images below give a rough sense of the effect, which is to change the depth of focus and the level of detail; when combined with the increased speed and mechanical jerkiness (due to the stop-motion animation), the film transforms footage of a typical sea-side town into a magical micropolis of urban interaction: a true sidewalk ballet which unfolds as tourists arrive, streetcars come and go, crowds surge and flow, and daily life weaves and cycles in an endless state of humming activity. (The title itself refers to the mechanical music box, where one could just wind it up again and have the whole scene-and-song play over again and again.)

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World on a Wire (Fassbinder, 1973)

Janus/Criterion has just re-released a beautiful print of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 two-part film, World on a Wire, and I was fortunate enough to have 210 minutes free on a Saturday afternoon to watch it. It’s great.

Plot-wise, the film covers much of the same ground as The Matrix and Inception – although it was made 30 years earlier – but this aspect is covered pretty well by other reviews. That said, the themes of living in the dream-like reality of a world of simulacra – and the ultimate dream of escape to a higher reality – take on a special richness in Fassbinder’s work, infused with the pathos of counter-cultural 1970s Germans.

Visually, the entire film (originally shot in square 16mm for television, like an instamatic photograph) is beautifully fake, presenting the veneer of the world that was the 1970s: plastic molded offices full of plastic molded furniture and plastic molded people with plastic, blank faces – with the exception of our hero, Fred Stiller, the new Director of the Simulacron Project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology. Stiller’s work, known as Simulacron 1, is the most sophisticated computer simulation ever made, a massive program modeling a world of 10,000 “identity units” for the purpose of making accurate scientific and government projections. It’s a planner’s dream: a simulated world where real life plays out for the purposes of forecasting future conditions and testing varios alternatives (“How much steel production will the economy require in 30 years?”; “Should we build more housing units in Baden-Württemberg or Schleswig-Holstein?”; and so on).

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