An aging Adolf Hitler appears on the evening news. A digital swastika hovers high above Times Square. A San Francisco dais flies Japan’s imperial flag.
Amazon’s latest original series, “The Man in the High Castle,” traffics in both the commonplace and the strange, the recognizable and the inconceivable, fashioning a fictional universe that seems all too real. Set in a world in which the Axis defeated the Allies in World War II, you might even call its engrossing alternate history of the mid-twentieth century a form of counter-cinema: “The Man in the High Castle” develops pictures from a revolution that never happened, familiar icons from an imagined past.
Developed by Frank Spotniz (“The X-Files”) from Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, the series is, in essence, a run-of-the-mill spy drama, following New Yorker Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) and San Franciscan Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) through the partitioned former U.S.—the Japanese-controlled Pacific States in the West, the Nazi-ruled Greater Reich in the East, and the lawless Neutral Zone in the middle.
With its characters’ motivations reduced to a generic desire for “freedom” and its narrative dependent on routine cycles of suspense, “The Man in the High Castle” is not as formidable as it might be, but the series’ superlative production design invigorates every betrayal, every interrogation, every conspiratorial whisper. Transforming the raw materials of well-known events by placing them in new contexts, “The Man in the High Castle” swims in vivid, uncanny images, a testament to what visual culture means in the making of history.
As a monstrous Obergruppenführer (Rufus Sewell) in the New York branch of Hitler’s SS sits down to breakfast with his family in a Long Island dining room, or as Joe switches the television to a police procedural called “American Reich,” the jarring mash-up of archetypes serves as a reminder of the cascade of visual cues from which we draw meaning. “The Nazi” is a figure we can easily pinpoint on an iconographic map, as is the suburban father, and to cross these and other wires—as “The Man in the High Castle” does time and again—is at once pleasurable and alarming: as it turns out, our understanding of the past is highly dependent on a kind of cinematic cuneiform, the reading of which is all too easily short-circuited.
From Kyu Sakamoto’s 1963 hit “Sukiyaki,” which once featured on “Mad Men,” to a bounty hunter’s deck of cards—printed with his targets’ personal information, in an apparent nod to the U.S. military’s tactic for identifying the “most wanted” Iraqis after the 2003 invasion—the series’ constellation of distant and recent allusions alike would be little more than a form of distraction were icons and images, particularly of the cinematic variety, not so key to its unspooling mystery. After all, the item at the center of Joe and Juliana’s perilous postwar quest is a purloined newsreel.
The rumored creation of the mysterious “man in the high castle,” the content of the opaquely titled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” (of which both Joe and Juliana possess a single, priceless copy) is in fact so iconic that we tend to forget its importance. Whether played on a personal projector or in an abandoned cinema, the marquee reading “CLOSED FOREVER,” the short film’s images of Winston Churchill and American GIs, of waving flags and celebrating citizens, depict the Allies winning the war—an alternate history, at least in the world of “The Man in the High Castle,” that assumes totemic importance.
“Not even Fraulein Riefenstahl could make films of such sophistication,” an American Nazi remarks, and while the provenance of “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” remains in question in “The Man in the High Castle,” the immense power of the image as a form of communication does not. “A film that shows another world? So what?” Joe asks Juliana at one point. “So, it means that maybe things don’t have to be this way,” she replies. “Maybe the world can change.”
As a central theme, this isn’t exactly novel, but in the series’ deft hands it becomes clear as if for the first time. In its unsettling, brilliantly conceived remix of stars and stripes, rising suns, and swastikas, of Polaroids, sumo wrestling, and the Hitler Youth, “The Man in the High Castle” is, if nothing else, yet further evidence that symbols speak very loudly, without having to say anything at all.
Even the title sequence, pairing the whir of moving celluloid with a chilling rendition of “Edelweiss”—made famous by the anti-fascist classic “The Sound of Music”—comes to suggest the incremental changes by which the culture we love might become a culture that terrifies us. It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind not only for the imagined past of “The Man in the High Castle,” but also for the many possible futures of the fallen world it doesn’t depict: ours.
All 10 episodes of “The Man in the High Castle” premiere Friday, Nov. 20 on Amazon Prime.