The Frightening Timeliness of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”

In November of 2015, then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump declared he wanted to establish a registry for Muslims living in the United States. (Although Trump’s team later denied the candidate’s involvement, a video surfaced days later than confirmed he had, in fact, made such a statement to an NBC reporter.) On November 16th, 2015, Carl Higbie, a Trump surrogate, argued that the internment camps used to imprison Japanese Americans during World War II could serve as a legal precedent for the establishment of similar camps for Muslims today. Three weeks later, on December 6th, 2015, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

Extreme xenophobia and the persecution of scapegoated minority populations are two of the chief hallmarks of fascism and, in particular, Nazism (a specific brand of fascism). According to the FBI, over the course of the following year (2016), anti-Islamic hate crimes increased 19 percent. The FBI will release its statistics for 2017 this fall, but according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes in ten major U.S. cities saw a 12.5 percent increase in 2017. The extent of this hate was very much on display in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11th and 12th, 2017, when a so-called “Unite the Right” rally (attended in force by several alt-right conservative groups, including Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, white supremacists, and members of the Ku Klux Klan) took place amidst massive counter-protests. (One counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed when a “Unite the Right” rally attendee, James Alex Fields, Jr., allegedly drove his car into a group of counter-protesters. Nineteen others were injured in the attack, and Fields has been charged with first-degree murder and a number of federal hate crimes. His trial for these crimes begins on November 26th, 2018.)

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Alt-Right extremist groups gather in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the “Unite the Right” rally held August 11th and 12th, 2017. A counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed during the rally. Photo credit: Anthony Crider.

Is it any wonder, then, that Amazon’s original series, The Man in the High Castle—which first aired on January 15th, 2015, and premiered its third season on October 5th, 2018—has already been renewed for a fourth season, set to air in 2019?

Like sci-fi master Philip K. Dick’s 1962 book of the same name (on which the series is only loosely based), Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle series explores an alternate-history America in which the Allies lost World War II and the two major Axis powers—Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—have divided the former United States between themselves (the Japanese hold West, the Nazis the East, with a “neutral zone” running north to south in between along the path of the Rocky Mountains). The series MacGuffin is a set of contraband 16mm films (the most coveted of which is titled, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy), that each appear to feature footage of the World War II history most familiar to us as viewers (i.e., footage of events that led to the victory of the United States and its allies, culminating in the dropping of Little Man and Fat Boy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, respectively). The central narrative of the series, then, revolves around the efforts of a variety of characters to obtain and view these films and/or keep them out of the hands of their enemies in the Greater Nazi Reich, the Japanese Pacific States, or the Resistance that fights against both. The analysis that follows in this article covers Season One and contains spoilers.

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An alternate-history, post-World War II America, as imagined by the opening credits of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Photo credit: Amazon Original.

The series begins some 15 years after the end of the alternate-history World War II. Our primary protagonist is Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos), a woman in San Francisco who discovers her sister, Trudy, has been killed during a mission to deliver one of the contraband films to the resistance in the Neutral Zone. When Juliana, with the film in tow, travels to the Neutral Zone in her sister’s place, she befriends Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), an undercover Nazi agent assigned to obtain the film and kill the courier transporting it to the resistance. Joe’s supervisor back in the Greater Nazi Reich city of New York is Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), a high-ranking SS (Shutzstaffel, or literally, “Protection Squadron”) officer who has recently survived a mysterious assassination attempt and is now determined to ferret out the traitor in his ranks. Meanwhile, back in the Japanese Pacific States, Juliana’s boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), a frustrated artist and secretly a Jew, finds himself the subject of a Kenpeitai (Japanese secret police) investigation that involves his ties to the missing Juliana and, by extension, the contraband film. Also in San Francisco, Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in what is, perhaps, the most soulful performance of the series) tries to uphold a sense of balance and justice amidst growing complications between the Japanese Pacific States and the Greater Nazi Reich. Involved in a mysterious plot himself, Tagomi uses meditation and the divination techniques of the I Ching to gain unique insights into the nature of “reality”—and the possibility of another reality altogether.

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The cast of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (from left to right: Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as “Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi”; Rupert Evans as “Frank Frink”; Joel de la Fuente as “Inspector Kido”; Alexa Davalos as “Juliana Crane”; Luke Kleintank as “Joe Blake”; DJ Qualls as “Ed McCarthy”; and Rufus Sewell as “Obergruppenführer John Smith”). Photo credit: Amazon Original.

Frank Spotnitz, formerly a writer and producer on The X-Files, developed The Man in the High Castle for Amazon, and while he has stepped away from his initial role as showrunner, he nevertheless continues as an executive producer of the series. The X-Files always excelled at capturing the cultural zeitgeist, particularly by tying its stories to current events. This strategy contributed to an uncanny feeling of contemporaneity, which is to say, viewers of The X-Files often felt the sensation that the supernatural events investigated by Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) were taking place alongside—even, perhaps, because of—the major headlines of the day. Whether by intention or coincidence, Spotnitz and his collaborators (one of whom is Isa Dick Hackett, Philip K. Dick’s daughter) have taken this strategy and extended it to the entire concept for their series. Granted, The Man in the High Castle was developed during the years of the Obama administration; but even then, the breezes of the coming storm—a resurgence of shameless white nationalism, white supremacy, Nazism, and fascism—were already well underway. The election of Obama in November of 2008 resulted in a sharp and immediate spike in hate crimes during that same month, and membership for a leading white supremacist website saw its membership increase by some 2,000 people on the day after that election.

But then, white-supremacist attitudes have always been part and parcel of America’s history, dating back on this continent to the days well before the American Revolution of 1776 and the establishment of the Republic. The early economies of many of the colonies, and, later, the nation, were built on the backs of enslaved peoples whose labor was induced under threat of corporal punishment, torture, or death. When the outcome of the U.S. Civil War ensured the official end of slavery, many states (and not all of them in the South) established stringent “Jim Crow” laws that sought to strictly control African-American behavior and movement in ways so restrictive that collectively the laws came to be known as “slavery by another name.”

Let’s not forget, either, that America has its own Nazi past. In his 2017 book, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, legal scholar James Q. Whitman asserts that the Nazis based their anti-Semitic laws on the “Jim Crow” laws codified into American law between Reconstruction and the onset of the Great Depression. One should not be surprised to learn, then, that the Nazi regime itself blessed the establishment of the German American Bund (GAB) in America during the 1930s. The GAB sought to plant Nazi ideas in American soil, even going so far as to establish a youth camp to indoctrinate children in Nazi ideology. In February of 1939, in fact, some 20,000 people (many of them GAB members) attended a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Violence erupted when rally attendees clashed with anti-fascist protesters outside the event.

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The so-called “Pro-America” Rally organized by the German-American Bund and held at Madison Square Garden in New York City, February, 1939. The rally was attended by 20,000 people.

What’s interesting about The Man in the High Castle series, however, is that its imaginations of American-fascist hybrids—whether within the Greater Nazi Reich or the Japanese Pacific States—do not appear all that different from the America we remember from 1962 (or even today). Yes, we see Nazi banners hanging from buildings and Japanese guards standing outside Japanese Pacific States government offices, but the trajectories of fashion, technology, architecture, and advertising seem only slightly altered (if at all) by the infusion of fascist ideologies into American culture at large. The larger idea, then, seems to be that America was always already fertile soil for the planting of fascist seeds, that somehow America’s assumption of the fascist mantle requires mere edits or “touch-ups” rather than a complete cultural overhaul. As production designer Andrew Broughton told Architectural Digest in 2016, “We set out to create upsetting, insidious imagery. Our motto has been ‘Doing violence to the American dream’ […] Our visual mission was not to make things too different, as that would defeat the purpose of making this ‘mirror’ to examine ourselves and our past and present actions.”

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A Nazi parade in New York City in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle recalls a similar event staged in October of 1939, when members of the German American Bund also marched down Manhattan streets. Photo credit: Amazon Original.

The seamless hybrids of fascism and American culture manifest themselves most fully within the mise-en-scène of the series—in set design, set decoration, props, costumes, and location shooting (albeit, this last is often digitally enhanced to impose Nazi or Japanese Imperial regalia on existing structures). In the Greater Nazi Reich, images of swastikas and der Führer mesh all-too-comfortably with the neon signs and illuminated billboards already so ubiquitous in the American capitalist landscape. This lack of distinction between propaganda and commercialism lends much credence to the Frankfurt School philosophies of Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. As sociology professor Nicki Lisa Cole asserts of these thinkers, “Their concern focused on how technology-enabled both a sameness in production, in the sense that technology shapes content and cultural frameworks create styles and genres, and also, a sameness of cultural experience, in which an unprecedented mass of people would sit passively before cultural content, rather than actively engage with one another for entertainment, as they had in the past. They theorized that this experience made people intellectually inactive and politically passive, as they allowed mass-produced ideologies and values to wash over them and infiltrate their consciousness.”

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Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) takes in the Nazi-New York hybrid in The Man in the High Castle. Photo credit: Amazon Original.

In the Japanese Pacific States, however, the presence of Japanese Imperial fascism is spread not through a conflation of capitalism and propaganda, but, instead, through a rigid caste system, bolstered by Kenpeitai surveillance and a heavy military presence. In contrast with the Greater Nazi Reich, the profusion of Japanese culture throughout the Pacific States is widespread—more omnipresent than what one currently finds in western coastal cities like San Francisco or Seattle. The results are seen in nearly every aspect of the production design, but particularly within the decorated interiors of spaces such as Tagomi’s office, where shoji-screen sliding doors and an earnest dedication to principles of Japanese aesthetics are beautifully intermingled with Western mid-century modernist (MCM) design (itself highly influenced by Japanese art and architecture). Interestingly, Tagomi’s office becomes, in many ways, the show’s “safe space,” a place of meditation and pondering that serves as the seat of his attempts to bring peace to a world threatened by the violent ambitions of others. It also serves as the tranquil springboard for the Trade Minister’s investigations into the existence of a parallel reality—a reality in which the outcome of World War II was very different.

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Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) talk in the Trade Minister’s office in The Man in the High Castle. Photo credit: Amazon Original.

Additionally, traditional Japanese social protocols (bowing, humble modes of address to superiors, etc.) are adopted by the formerly American citizens of the Japanese Pacific States as a way of demonstrating submission to Japanese authority. American relics command high prices from antique dealers such as Robert Childan (Brennan Brown), who caters to wealthy Japanese clients obsessed with adding authentic U.S. regalia and ephemera to the collections displayed in their sleek, MCM homes. Conversely, Juliana navigates through gray streets and neighborhoods, monochrome bureaucratic corridors, rickety marketplaces filled with colorful makeshift stalls and bodegas. The Japanese Pacific States are spaces of cultural colonization more than capitalist-fascist conflation. Here, fascism is more a matter of cultural cornering and control than it is of propaganda.

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Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) walks through Japanese San Francisco in The Man in the High Castle. Photo credit: Amazon Original.

In either fascist region, amidst all these myriad attempts to control and/or indoctrinate populations that are, for the most part, passive and docile, the contraband 16mm films are arbiters of chaos and ideological disruption. In a major change from the novel, in which the contraband item is a banned book, The Man in the High Castle series opts for cinema as the forbidden, censored window onto a parallel, alternate reality. The choice seems an apt one, particularly given the fact that cinema itself—in its material, celluloid form—has a chemical tie back to the original events as filmed in those historical moments. (The light that burned images into the emulsion of the celluloid film as events were being shot leaves its trace, or “index,” on the film itself. This trace is what we see when we view those developed images projected, once again, with light. Thus, when we watch projected analog films, we are are interacting with the chemical remnants of light that bounced off the objects shown on screen and burned images of those objects onto the film itself. Therefore, we have a physical, chemical trace back to the original events. These ideas are best encapsulated in film theorist André Bazin’s seminal essay, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”).

When Juliana watches the film given her by Trudy, she’s experiencing more than just images of an alternate reality; she’s viewing images that are a projected version of a chemical trace back to the events of that alternate reality. Just as Tagomi is able to access that alternate reality through meditation and the divination practices of the I Ching, Juliana (and, indeed, anyone who watches the contraband films) is able to access an “index,” a “trace” of that alternate, much more positive reality themselves. As Juliana sits, watching the first of these films in her basement apartment, tears well in her eyes. The film depicts a reality in which the Allies won World War II, in which fascism as an ideology and governmental system was defeated. As we, the audience, watch Juliana watching, her face and body turned to the camera, her eyes looking upward at the images on her screen, we see a shadowy reflection of ourselves, and we feel awestruck by Dick’s and Spotnitz’s vision of a world in which the Allies lost. Juliana and we, the audience, could just as easily be viewing one another, wondering how two such parallel realities could exist, both hinging on turns of fate during World War II. It is the most self-reflexive, self-refential meta-moment of the show’s first season.

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Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) serves as an audience surrogate, amazed at a vision of an alternate-history World War II in way that mirrors the experience of the audience. Photo credit: Amazon Original.

But then, should we really be surprised to find that we share Juliana’s tearful amazement at the images she sees? Our tearful amazement—and horror—extends beyond the dystopian, fascist worlds of the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States we see streaming on our screens. Our tearful amazement and horror extends into our everyday world in which the alternate reality depicted in The Man in the High Castle series is coming to very vivid life right before our eyes outside our homes and away from our screens. That was then, and this is now, you say. But even while writing this article, I took a break to check social media and learned that a Jewish community center in Northern Virginia was recently vandalized with 19 spray-painted swastikas.

Think fascism can’t happen here? My friend, think again; it’s here already. The hate we are witnessing today is not new—it’s simply no longer fearful, fringe, or ashamed. Fascists don’t always announce themselves with jackboots, brown shirts, and goosesteps; sometimes, they wrap themselves in the folds of the American flag. Spotnitz and his fellow producers seem to have understood the long history of America’s dark flirtations with fascism—flirtations that are, in many ways, an unfortunate, if natural, outgrowth of white supremacist ideologies that date back hundreds of years on this continent.

Fight now. Vote on November 6th. Elect principled leaders who believe in compassion, civil rights, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Resist—while you still can.


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