One of the best things about The Man in the High Castle TV show is how thorough the world-building is. It’s not just 1960s America, co-occupied by the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany, either—season two showed us the disturbing grandeur of what Berlin could have looked like had the Nazis won World War II, by creating a monumental building Hitler himself had envisioned.
The building is the “Volkshalle,” the immense, domed structure where Hitler holds his rally. It’s featured extensively in the very beginning of this effects reel from Barnstorm VFX, showing how they created a lot of the monumental Nazi architecture and culture:
“Much of the architecture was based on actual plans that Hitler had for ‘Germania,’ a World Capital designed by architect Albert Speer that was to be constructed in the heart of Berlin,” explained The Man in the High Castle Visual Effects Supervisor Lawson Deming. “The thousand foot tall domed structure known as the Volkshalle was the centrepiece of this development, and extensive plans and scale models exist for it.”
The effects supervisor and production designer Andrew Boughton used a book titled Albert Speer Architecture: 1932-1942 as a guide to what Berlin would look like in the ‘60s, had the Nazis won World War II. In addition to his own research, Deming and his team used the production designers’ sketches, concept illustrations, and blueprints to build the digital assets, along with photos of the physical sets to make sure they matched the false ones.
Boughton’s illustration of the Volkshalle rally (All images provided courtesy of Barnstorm VFX)
Final Volkshalle rally shot
For the Volkshalle Rally, the large dome designed by Speer added special challenges. “There’s always a balance you need to strike between pure realism and what works narratively,” said Deming. “We also modified some things from what they presumably would have looked like in order to better match the pre-existing aesthetics and design cues established by the show.”
Attempts to match the actual historic plans changed when confronted with the reality. For example, Deming explained how the only “real” reference to the Volkshalle was this “a single photograph of a low detail model”:
The only reference image for the inside of the volkshalle
The first attempt by the crew to match the image they had for their effects didn’t go well. “It just didn’t work on screen because the scale of the physical space inside the dome is incomprehensible and there are few human-sized details to help sell it,” explained Deming. But his led to another problem. “The only real world frame of reference we had was the Pantheon, on which the interior dome design is based, but the Pantheon dome is 1/8 the size of the Volkshalle, and if you look at photos of that dome, many of them look artificial, like a painting. So how in the world were we going to make an 800-foot marble dome that didn’t look fake?”
The modified Volkshalle model with additional features
So the team re-designed Speer’s Volkshalle, sacrificing a perfect replica of what Hitler wanted for what would actually read on screen. The original design had no sense of scale, so the production designer and Deming added details to help audiences actually grasp the size. “Drew and I went over everything with a fine-toothed comb and my team ended up rebuilding most of the model from scratch,” he said. “We added dentils and other architectural elements to break up the large flat spaces with details that suggested the large scale and changed the shape of some of the columns to catch the lighting better.”
That’s not to say they didn’t make sure what they added wasn’t also historically accurate. “We also added signs, wall lighting and hanging arcade lighting, and statues reminiscent of the Arno Breker sculptures from outside the Reich Chancellery,” said Deming.
The result was much easier to digest. “The detail and re-shaping of elements helped add weight to the space, and even though the size is still hard to conceive of, it was a huge improvement over our original more slavish recreation of that single photograph,” Deming concluded.
It’s a huge undertaking to blend historical realism with speculative fiction, but it’s one that Deming relishes. “Beyond the excitement of being able to create things, we all felt a strange sense of responsibility to portray this fake history ‘accurately’, for lack of a better word,” he said. “Unlike other science fiction shows where you just create, we had to become historians to a time that never existed, because it is so close to our real world.”