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.)

In the end, though, beyond relocating this one column and constructing a few administrative and cultural buildings, almost none of Speer’s proposed structures were actually completed before the demands of winning—and then the reality of losing—the war intervened. (That said, Speer unfortunately made great progress on his plans for destruction of the city—more on that below.)

Thus, through this one image—five seconds of film—we begin to enter the shadowlands between the world that was and the world that might have been. As our eye moves up from the column to follow the shot, we are treated—or terrified—with a feast of unbuilt architecture. Using the latest software and rendering techniques to visualize the completion of actual archival plans from the 1930s, the production team has masterfully brought to life a mad planner’s beautiful nightmare: an “Alt-Berlin” that was designed to last a thousand years, but never built. (In Dick’s book the story doesn’t get to Berlin, but he certainly would have enjoyed the mind-bending nature of this work: a tv series spun off from a fictional book showing a realistic computer simulation of an imagined city based on real sketches made by a dead architect.)

speer_1.jpg

Figure 2: Albert Speer’s model for the Prachtallee, looking north; from: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146III-373 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5484311

Spanning the horizon as the spine of the new imperial capital runs the three-mile long Prachtallee (Boulevard of Splendors; shown in Figure 2, looking north). At the south, the massive Triumphal Arch, intended to be over 100 meters high, large enough to fit over Paris’s Arc de Triomphe; to the north, along the Spree River, sits the heart of the Reich, an immense domed structure to be known as the Volkshalle (People’s Hall). In some versions of the plans, rather than spanning the Spree, the river itself was to be relocated—like the Victory Column—to accommodate Speer’s vision.

Although never built, Speer’s monster-piece (indeed, some dubbed it the “Monsterbau,” or monster-building) truly puts the “dominate” in “dome”: looking like the US Capitol on steroids (or perhaps Nazi Pervitin), it would have been large enough to fit the Papal Basilica of St. Peter inside it. Hitler planned to use the massive hall to gather crowds of up to 180,000 people—what would have been by far the largest interior assembly space in the world; planners fretted that the respiration from so many excited Nazis in a single enclosed space might create its own weather patterns. (The Volkshalle figures prominently in the second season, and the interior was painstakingly recreated for the show as well, as discussed in this article on io9).

In a nice touch, given that the show takes place in 1962, a full 15 years after the war, the team updated Speer’s vision slightly: after all, time marches on even in the alternative past. Running straight through the main establishing shot, and visible in other scenes as well, a clean and modern monorail whisks people above the city, like something out of “Wald Disney Welt’s Morgen-Lande.” (Some might object to the placement here: the tracks nearly graze the Victory Column, upsetting the delicate symmetry of the design; when necessary, Speer preferred to put transport, infrastructure, and even pedestrians underground and out of view.) Other shots depict cranes, busy building on the ever-expanding horizon, and later in the season we are treated to a pitch for the Reich’s plans to dam and drain the Mediterranean Sea (an idea also found in the book, based on a real-world scheme known as Atlantropa promoted by the German architect Herman Sörgel). “Make no little plans—they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” it would seem.

76f5f392dd3c11c9b8b9b3d9a7dc7ee9.png

Figure 3: The Siegessäule and Volkshalle, with monorail; from “Man in the High Castle,” Season 2.


But pause the show for a moment (use the space bar—it’s a shortcut): now is the time in the article when we need to stop admiring all these impressive designs and instead reflect on what we are seeing and what it really means.

For starters, to conclude that Speer devised ambitious, albeit unimplemented, plans for the improvement of Berlin would be a dangerous mis-characterization, in two ways. Firstly, he did not so much envision “fixing” Berlin as utterly destroying it and rebuilding a new city in its place, like a Phoenix rising or some similar deranged Nazi metaphor. As Hitler plotted to destroy the world in order to usher in a new Third Reich, Speer made plans for a total war on the city and people of Berlin in order to achieve his perfect vision.

Secondly, it would be wrong to conclude that Speer only planned this assault. Although he constructed little, he spent years making destructive “progress” in the early stages of his scorched-earth campaign. In 1937 Hitler named Speer General Building Inspector for the Reich Capital and granted him extraordinary powers, which he used to demolish entire neighborhoods and forcibly relocate thousands of residents at a pace that would have made Robert Moses jealous: urban renewal on an insane scale. Jewish families were moved to concentration camps to make room for other dislocated Berliners whose homes were bulldozed, in a sickening game of cascading misery. All urban planners have a responsibility to remember these aspects of the master-builder’s tenure, and to be aware of the sad parallels with our own planning history.

So complete were Speer’s plans for destruction that he would joke, when Allied bombers had a particularly successful night, that they were doing his job for him. Had Germany’s eventual loss not occurred (and the city’s underlying sandy soils been more conducive to supporting his proposed buildings—he still had some technical issues to work through), he would surely have demolished even more of the old city, including the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate.

And to what end? Here, too, one is reminded of Moses. As described in an excellent article in the Guardian:

Architects and urban planners who have analysed [Speer’s planned] city in recent years claim it would probably have been nightmarish to live in: hostile to pedestrians, who would regularly have be sent underground to cross streets, and with a chaotic road system, as Speer’s did not believe in traffic lights or trams. Citizens would have been made to feel variously impressed and inhibited by the towering structures around them.

Even more chilling, Speer actually contemplated the destruction of his own beautiful creations 1000 years in the future, expounding his Ruinenwerttheorie–a “theory of ruin value”—for the architectural monuments he designed, a sort of perverted death-cult in stone, the city as mausoleum.

But beyond this historical context, there is a deeper, ideological problem with Speer’s vision for Berlin. As documented in his extensive plans and brought to life by Amazon Studios for us to contemplate, the cityscape of Welthauptstadt Germania is stunning. And “stunning” is the desired effect: as with other art forms (film and music come to mind), Hitler subscribed to a certain “shock-and-awe” school of architectural design (hence the obsession with scale, permanence, and order); the effect is to render the individual meaningless and elevate the state above all else. (Interestingly, designers fretted over how to ensure that the Führer himself would not be diminished by the scale of these monumental works: in the days before Jumbotron screens, how could a crowd of 180,000 even see the man speaking, especially one who was only three inches taller than Napoleon?)

But perhaps we need to feel the shock and try to push back on the awe: even if these structures are glorious, do we endorse the beliefs they embody? And is it possible to separate the two? Just as is true for the music of Carl Orff and the films of Leni Reifenstahl, Albert Speer’s architecture is inextricably linked to fascist ideology—and this is more than just guilt by association. In all three these cases, the artists may have been masters of their respective crafts, but their crafts were designed to unleash extremely powerful emotions and used to incite equally dangerous actions. The techniques and tools they perfected are incredibly effective: they seem to have hit upon certain universals rules of aesthetics—certain ideal forms—that just work.

Even more problematically, the techniques of fascist architecture (or music or film or graphic design) may in fact be so powerful that they transcend history and even geo-politics: this is not just a “Nazi problem” we can relegate to the past. These tools work for fascists, but non-fascists are tempted to use them as well. As Dietmar Schirmer has noted, much of the best architecture from the period—whether in Berlin, Paris, or Washington, DC—employs the “Stripped Classicism” favored by Speer. (Schirmer also cites the more recent controversy over the WWII Memorial on the Washington Mall: some critics charge that in attempting to capture a “1940s style,” the designers have essentially created a “fascist-looking” American memorial.) Further complicating the story, the influence actually runs in multiple directions: in addition to admiring Haussmann’s Paris and classical Rome, Speer was a big fan of L’Enfant’s monumental plan for Washington, DC—so where are the roots of the problem?.

The fear here, or course, is not a superficial one. As McLuhan reminded us, the medium is the message, and we therefore risk ingesting a bit of fascism in our diet every time we benefit from these techniques. As a wise friend once quipped, “There are two kinds of people: those who feel that all parades are a little bit fascist, and fascists.”

Anarchists, situationists, insurgent resistance cells, hippies, lovers, dreamers, mystics, poets, and other avowed counter-culture anti-fascists have long struggled with this challenge: Can we use the tools of fascism without being fascist ourselves? Is there such a thing as “anti-propaganda propaganda” or an un-monumental monument? And what should a truly democratic capital look like? (These last questions are left as an exercise for the reader.)

As an antidote to Speer’s visions and “Man in the High Castle,” I recommend a palette-cleansing viewing of Walther Ruttman’s 1927 film, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, which showcases Weimar Berlin, before Hitler. Sadly, the delightful cuckoo-clockwork city he depicts was doubly destroyed by both sides during the war—but we can still speculate about this alternative world that wasn’t, a more pleasant alt-alt-history.

Comments are closed.