The mid-European style of American dystopia

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A Mercedes E-class sedan in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Watching the two seasons of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, one thing becomes apparent very early on: Gilead’s ruling class loves Mercs! The commanders and their wives love to be ferried around in luxurious black Mercedes sedans and SUVs. Gilead’s rulers’ fascination with the German brand is such that although the totalitarian regime uses cars of other brands, Mercs are the only cars “allowed” to bear a brand logo! Look closely and you’ll see that all the (blacked-out) Lincolns, Fords and Cadillac SUVs are stripped of their logos, as if these are reviled reminders of an era when their passengers were the happy families of the American Dream.

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Gilead “govenment” SUVs – all branding has been removed.

This choice of car-maker is not just a stylistic preference; like everything else in the show, cars are carefully chosen for their contextual associations. Mercedes is a symbol of wealth and power — it was also Hitler’s luxury car-maker of choice. The German cars are significant even when they are not used: in episode 11 in season 2, when Offred finally finds a vehicle to escape with, it is a shiny 1975 Chevrolet Camaro, carefully hidden in an inconspicuous shed. This proudly American (logos and all) car is obviously a symbol of freedom; it is also the only piece of streamlined, classic American design across all 23 episodes of both seasons.

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Commander Waterfords’s house is an 1893 Victorian mansion in a historic neighborhood of Hamilton, Ontario.

Mercs are not the only European “import” in The Handmaid’s Tale. Julie Berghoff, the production designer of the first 5 episodes and the other designers of the show have carefully “erased” any sign of Americana from the world of Gilead, and replaced it entirely with middle-European influences. Gone are the classic American diners with the chrome-edged counters. Gone are the 1950s and 1960s motel signs and classic American graphics. Architecture is strictly limited to the styles of turn-of-the-century Victorian and Gothic Revival for the houses of the commanders and of Bauhaus-inspired modernist for public spaces. The setting and the filming locations are key in this decision; the story is set in New England, home of some of the oldest, European-influenced housing in the U.S.; the filming locations in and around Toronto, Canada are of similar age and match the mid-European styling perfectly. In fact, when Offred walks across the River Humber you would be forgiven in thinking she is strolling along the banks of the Rhein, somewhere in Cologne or Basel.

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Humber river in Toronto, Canada, as used in The Handmaid’s Tale

In horror films (psychological or otherwise), the use of European aesthetic influences in American settings is not a new thing. From Psycho, to The Exorcist, and more recently to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, the preferred architectural style for every haunted house, mysterious mansion or cobweb-covered abandoned estate, is resolutely middle-European. In dark fantasy it is the same; Tim Burton, and more recently Guillermo del Toro have built their careers exploring (and exploiting) the European — mainly Gothic — artistic heritage to embellish their dark fairy-tales. Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is the most obvious, recent example; the story unfolds in Baltimore, Maryland but the sets resemble a darker, crumbling version of Amelie’s Paris. It is similar to the “villain with the British accent” fad in action films; if there is a house or other setting where sinister or highly dramatic things are about to happen, it is bound to be old and it is bound to be of European architectural heritage.

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Elisa’s apartment in The Shape of Water.

This approach has now almost become a cliché, but in The Handmaid’s Tale, it works exceptionally well, supported by an appropriately muted, “Nordic” colour palette. The costume design reinforces the concept, with the European element represented by the Amish-inspired handmaids’ uniforms and the black-clad government guards and officials (taken straight from the Nazi uniforms of the SS and the Italian fascist blackshirts). With the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale approaching soon, we can only expect even more European luxury cars and classically decorated, Victorian mansions on show. Hopefully the new episodes will also remain free of villains with British accents!

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