High Marks for “The Man in the High Castle”

| December 4, 2015

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What if we lost the war? A chilling, provocative exploration of what might have been.

Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor

Nick Rudnik

Seldom does a film or television program come along that is as provocative, as antithetical to our very understanding of the world as Frank Spotnitz’s loose Amazon adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 alternative history novel, “The Man in the High Castle.” In Dick’s masterpiece, the year is 1962, the pinnacle of the placid postwar sixties. Except this postwar era is a bit different from our contemporary understanding: the Axis powers, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, have enjoyed fifteen years of peace and tranquility following their decisive victory in the World War II. (In this reality, the war ends in 1947.)

The United States has been colonized by Japan and the Reich. The Nazis govern the eastern seaboard, while the Japanese control California. A large no-man’s-land, the neutral zone, exists between both states. In Dick’s alternate reality, the Germans developed a nuclear weapon before the United States—and use it to vaporize Washington, DC. They then invade, and colonize, establishing an authoritarian regime in America. A regime replete with secret police, concentration camps, propaganda, scapegoating, and all of the other despondent particulars of fascist Germany.

The protagonist is a San Franciscan, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), as she unwittingly joins the American resistance, befriending Nazi double agent Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), who purports to be a member of the resistance also. The plot weaves between the resistance and the machinations of Nazi and Japanese politicians at the highest levels of government, as both superpowers are on the brink of thermonuclear annihilation, with an ailing Adolf Hitler slowly losing his grip on power in the periphery.

Although there are differences between the novel and show, hints of Dick’s provocative thesis show through the drama: the staunch similarities, despite the obvious differences, of an Axis postwar order to our own reality. As in our own history, the two superpowers of “The Man in the High Castle,” careen headlong toward atomic conflict. To Dick, whoever claimed victory on the battlefields of the Second World War, a cold war between superpowers was inevitable.

Perhaps the greatest foil in bridging reality from fantasy is American SS commander John Smith (Rufus Sewell, pictured above, left). Smith typifies just how pervasive ideologies can be, one of the work’s main themes. A proud American and Nazi, Smith often gazes toward the edge of the frame pensively, his eyes hiding great pain and mystery behind them. He notes that despite the struggles of the past, America is stronger, safer, and better because of Nazism. The disturbing and ironic language of Smith is buttressed by stunning sets and backstory: the blending of American and Nazi symbolism, swastikas adorning Times Square, VA day (rather than VE day), and the like.

Then there are the film reels. The drama’s heroine, Crane, is tasked with delivering a contraband film reel to the neutral zone from San Francisco. She rigs the film to an antique projector, despite her orders to the contrary, and uncovers the greatest puzzle of the drama: the films, purportedly from the “man in the high castle,” a resistance leader, tell of a world where the Allies win the war, an alternate reality, seen from old news bulletins of VJ and VE day, the Japanese surrender, the atomic bomb, and the like. How can this be? Are these films telling of an alternative reality within an alternate reality? Or are the characters discovering for themselves their own false existence?

Whatever the case may be, the answers to this drama lie with the films. The drama that ensues is a chilling reminder of both life as it could have been, and invariably was. It not only reminds us what terrible reality may have been if the Axis emerged from the Second World War victorious, but also, the terrible reality that was inescapable: the rise of a cold war, militarism, proxy wars, political violence, absolutist ideologies, and more.

For this, “The Man in the High Castle” stands out as both the winter’s most novel and most provocative new show. It is provocative not only for envisaging a world so adversative to our own, but one also so similar. And perhaps that is the most chilling aspect of all.

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