Alt-History in Film: Nightmares We Can’t Afford


It seems that in recent years writers, directors, and show-runners alike feel an increasing responsibility to portray the horrors our societies have refrained to indulge in. The backwash of history is full of the last-minute saves and “what-ifs” modern media loves to evoke, like The Axis Powers winning WWII or the Cold War going hot — all of which are tales conjured in the safety of fictitious worlds that managed to escape from these fates. The last decade has seen a proliferation of alt-history fiction, which often mirrors unsettling developments in the real world. The latest entry, Plot against America, is the most recent heir of a long dynasty of often US-centric, 20th-century-based reimaginings.

In a culture as prone to idealized self-image as the United State is, perhaps feeling an urge to despair over what could have been is proper. It’s only natural for the rest of the world to contemplate this house of black mirrors, with both awe and fearful fixation, as it reveals the cultural relevance within its walls. Man in the High Castle’s (2015-19) praise of collaboration echoes neo-Nazi chants in Charlottesville and the gutting of American civil institutions; Watchmen (2019) contemplates the deep-set roots of America’s divided society; Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019) almost presents as a celebration of the dying Hollywood establishment, as modern Hollywood is rocked by its cycles of abuse coming to the fore; and Blade Runner 2049‘s (2017) environmental apocalypse is the daughter of the climate crisis (while this is not technically an alt-history movie, something must have happened in the 1980s to transform the Soviet Union into a mass-market society built on brand identity).

On the other side of the pond, the Polish series, 1983 (2018), was widely read as a therapeutic contemplation of the country’s troubled past with communism. Meanwhile, the 2019 winner of the literary Prix de l’Académie de France, Laurent Binet’s Civilisations, imagines an Inca invasion of Europe by 1536.

Looking Glass in Watchmen. HBO.

The air of accountability for the way we manage to feel touched by alt-history – to deem these stories believable – is honestly a bit suspicious. To legitimize that nuclear holocaust could’ve struck the earth with the same likelihood as it ultimately (and gratefully!) failed to do is somewhat… obscene. It isn’t obscenity in the the pearl-clutching, cross-waving, would-someone-think-of-the-children sense, but rather as the revelation of something that is supposed to stay hidden. After all, serving as an unflinching exposure to the grim potential of our world’s collective action, alt-history is basically a perverse political one-upper to the crimes humanity has already committed. It accents political narcissism by celebrating strained heroism — the kind that postulates that dystopia could only be averted by a scarcely common combination of  the “right” individuals in the “right” place at the “right” moment. What truly defines valor, however, is a hopeful fight against insurmountable odds and seemingly invincible systems, regardless of personal convenience. The heroes are those who patiently pour gasoline, not the ones who hastily light matches to ignite the fires of social change by chance.

Alt-history, per its own terminology, is a lie. Obviously, we’re still here, on a mostly Fallout-free world. Hannah Arendt, a German philosopher, once wrote that lies and good politics share the same birth because they both imagine what the world could be, instead of what it is. My gut feeling is that good alt-history follows this same principle — it engages in credible world-building that starts from the problematic issues that persist in those possible environments. It draws scenarios by chiaroscuro, starting from the shadows and defining the light spots through the darkness. Man in the High Castle, and other series like it, often rely on shortcuts that sacrifice political logic on the altar of character development – to simply “make a point,” namely that we’re all hidden collaborators, and every oppressor can also be a victim.

World-building requires a commendable honesty towards oneself, as well as a systematic embrace of the realistic consequences that spark the inspiration for the series and films that depict them. Reparations for the descendants of the Tulsa massacre are legitimate, but it wouldn’t solve racism overnight, and killing Hitler wouldn’t have shaken the authoritarian state from being hellbent on ethnic cleansing — one can not improve the world by plainly trying to wish away the structures that underpin it.

Alt-history is powerful when it doesn’t simply represent a macabre mirror to current circumstance, but rather, when it indulges in the rough and rotten underbelly of its own utopian vision. It’s a poetry of consequences, which draws strength from remixing shards of real history by stretching them to the cornerstone of their untrue realities – not by trying to bend the past towards a path it justifiably didn’t take. When effective, alt-history’s stories should redefine kernels of historical truths to contextualize our vision of contemporary society, rather than merely erasing them (such as the horrors of the Tulsa massacre). So as we live in a time soaked with the environmental and social consequences of our actions, the forms of alt-history that stem from thoughtless and arbitrary departures from the past are nightmares we can’t afford.

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