“The Man in the High Castle” is one of the most haunting and intriguing films I’ve ever seen. This original Amazon series (2 seasons out ‘so far’) presents a world where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won the Second World War and divided the world between themselves. Most of the film is set in a dystopian United States in the 1960s made up of three political units, Nazi America – roughly two-thirds of the former U.S. – under the rule of the Greater Nazi Reich, the Pacific States in the west under Japanese control and a ‘Neutral Zone’ acting as a buffer between the two powers. Various sub-plots all answer to the main thread focussing on the ‘Resistance’, a movement bringing together various committed and reluctant freedom fighters all intent on disseminating mysterious reel films released by an equally mysterious figure referred to as the “Man in the High Castle”. The films are the fulcrum of the whole story and, in my opinion, the genius underlying the production (based on Philip Dick’s 1962 novel). The reels contain actual footage from the historic Second World War and the Cold War, but it is not explained how they can exist in this counterfactual world.
Although the storyline is occasionally maladroit and the actors’ performance lacks lustre and complexity, the film raises so many questions that its depths are almost unfathomable. It hits at the heart of historiography and ferociously challenges our comfortable notions of freedom, evil, and political totalitarianism. Orwellian in style and Tacitean in philosophy, it successfully promotes the idea that even under the worst of dictatorships, (some) men can be great – but their greatness is guaranteed, in this instance, by the redeeming power of imagination and transcendence. Salvation comes from above (the elusive ‘man in the high castle’), and through the inexplicable – for how can a Hitler in his seventies can watch a film about Khrushchev?
When left to themselves, the characters struggle with the inability to rise above the ethical predicament that they can only intuit. In this, they are indebted to Orwell’s critique of the human condition. However, when confronted with the possibility of the alternative that the reel films unveil, they are energised and given a new lease of life. Goodness is not so much the cause of the revolt, as its consequence. The cause of it is the transformative power of the counter-narrative, which makes disciples, spreads the good news and brings the system down. The film is bold enough, at the end of its second season – a third hasn’t been announced – to claim that the system is never down. Perhaps it can never be down. But the incomprehensible ‘dare!’ has the power to put it out of joint.
Perhaps no review can fully do justice to this film. The feeling I was left with after devouring its twenty or so episodes was one of sinister optimism. The micro-details of übertotalitarianism are all there, crude and disturbing, sometimes even too much, but they do the job. There’s even a caput-mundi-type of Berlin based on Hitler’s blueprints. What would our world be like if history had been different? That is the starting point. But more importantly, where exactly are we? Is our (apparent?) diversity of narratives today a guarantee of that counter-narrative that freedom can and will never be chained? For some of us, that counter-story was laid bare long ago, and it’s proved to be the reel film that kept our world from becoming a permanent dystopia. But that is another story.