Images and visuals can create a lasting impact on our minds. Just as we have seen that symbols of hate and oppression can be used to control and manipulate a world into submission, representations of strength, liberation and peace can help fight the darkness, too.
This is one of the many things that make Amazon Prime’s drama series The Man in the High Castle jarring and immediately gripping.
Based on author Philip K Dick’s 1963 sci-fi novel by the same name, The Man in the High Castle explores an alternate reality in which Germany and Japan have won World War II. America is now divided into three parts. The East makes up the Greater Nazi Reich, the Western side is the colony of the Japanese Pacific States, and a small strip in the middle is called the Neutral Zone, which is not directly under the occupation but is heavily regulated nonetheless. Here you may find a Bible, but it’s advised that you don’t talk about it.
In 1962 America, life is restricted, thought is controlled, and birth and race are of utmost importance. But a flailing faction, the resistance, is trying to fight the fascists. The resistance is smuggling films across the regulated landscape, and these depict an alternate reality, a world that could be.
The highly stylised portrait of dystopia boasts of Ridley Scott at the helm as the executive producer. The story revolves around Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos), who gets caught up with the resistance when her sister Trudy hands her one of these films seconds before being shot down by Japanese military police.
Juliana, like most of the population, has adjusted to a life under occupation. She lives with her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), an artist who works at a factory fashioning fake collectible guns. They keep their heads down. But Juliana leaves for the Neutral Zone, carrying with her a film reel titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, looking for answers to her sister’s death and the “way out” she claimed existed. While Frank is left behind to deal with the consequences, Juliana meets Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a man with questionable allegiances and a similar film hiding in his truck.
Joe works for John Smith, a high-ranking Nazi official in Manhattan, played by the brilliant and brooding English actor Rufus Sewell. Smith, easily the most interesting and complicated character on the show, is an ex-American soldier who becomes an integral part of the Nazi regime. His loyalty to Adolf Hitler is unshakable, but his love and devotion to his family are almost redeeming for a bit.
Smith has been tasked with rounding up all these films after a direct order from the old and fragile Hitler, who is collecting these mysterious reels – as is an unnamed man in the high castle.
A parallel storyline is a tense political drama, in which a different version of the Cold War being played out.
As Hitler ages and inches towards certain death, the world sits on the precipice of a devastating war for total control. Brutal and inscrutable Chief inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) in San Francisco, charming yet threatening John Smith in Manhattan, the sagacious and sympathetic Japanese Trade minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and a disillusioned German SS official Rudolph Wegener(Carsten Norgaard) are all part of a complicated and delicate balance keeping this twisted, fascist, hate-filled dirty version of peace alive. The biggest villain in history is the only thing holding this alternate universe away from certain destruction – if that isn’t powerful irony, what is?
The show’s most crucial character is the bold and chill-inducing art. The Reich-ruled states are hard, cold, dark and disturbing – saturated with swastika flags, black arm bands and posters celebrating the purity of blood. Adolf Hitler is alive, and seeing the dictator as he might have aged is deeply unsettling, to say the least. On the other hand, the West is bursting with lush, Asian-inspired art and architecture – but is just as oppressive and claustrophobic.
A twisted theme of loyalty is at the core of the show – loyalty to the twisted dreams of a fascist dictator and hate justified by war, and a scary obsession with nationalism and the fatherland.
The title credits depict the American map drowning in Nazi and Japanese elements. It is set to a slow dirge-like version of Edelweiss, sung with a very pronounced accent that turns the song from Sound of Music into a haunting premonition of what is to follow in the next 60 minutes. The show is unnerving and relevant, and has been renewed for a third season.