An Authentic Forgery: thoughts on The Man in the High Castle

MitHC Tagomi
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Nobusuke Tagomi

Get ready. Because this review is going all over the place.

In Steven Spielberg’s excellent new film, Bridge of Spies, the character of James B. Donovan, based on the real-life man of the same name, wonderfully played by Tom Hanks, utters a line of dialogue.

Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies

“It doesn’t matter what other people think. You know what you did.” James B. Donovan, portrayed by Tom Hanks

He’s talking to somebody who could be perceived in the minds of many people as a possible traitor to his nation. When this person turns to him and tries to tell him that he never betrayed the trust of those he fought for, James cuts him off and says the above line. It’s delivered in such a reassuring, confident manner by Hanks… you just feel that everything he says is good, right, and true.

This line prompted a startling realization in me. The truth is always what’s real. And reality beats the lie every time. No matter how many people believe the lie; no matter how long the lie is popularly given assent as the truth… it cannot prevail over the truth. Because the truth… well, that’s the only thing that is unequivocally real.

Amazon Studios, Ridley Scott, Frank Spotnitz and Isa Dick Hackett have combined forces to bring Philip K. Dick’s award-winning 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle to the screen, this time as a TV series, sans commercials and traditional airdates.

The result is a ten-episode first season that carefully establishes a world of such intricate realism, you’ll rub your eyes and look twice at the world outside your door.

Cr: Liana Hentcher/Amazon Studios
Luke Kleintank as Joe Blake and Burn Gorman as “The Marshall”

For the uninitiated, The Man in the High Castle imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II after the Germans beat the U.S. in the race to build an atomic weapon and used it to wipe out Washington D.C. President Roosevelt is assassinated and the USA becomes excessively isolationist, refusing to enter the war. In short order, the Germans invade and conquer on the eastern front, the Japanese on the west.

The young characters in the small-screen presentation of this story grew up in this world, where pre-war America is a mythical land that never was. For older characters, the USA is nothing but a nostalgic memory of a bygone ideology.

The world that has been established in place of ours is terrifying in the scope of its realization. High-speed German “rockets” carry important passengers across oceans and continents in mere hours, much of Africa has been reduced to a post-nuclear wasteland, and the Greater Nazi Reich (formerly the USA east of the Rockies) has achieved a model society where everyone who belongs has a place… and those who do not belong are exiled or exterminated.

Rupert Evans as Frank Frink

Also in this alternate world is a shadowy figure referred to as “The Man in the High Castle”

The titular character is… SPOILER ALERT-

…never actually shown (that we know of) in the first season of this series.

Upon reaching the climax of the tenth episode, you could be forgiven for thinking that Adolf Hitler fits the description, because he is indeed a man who resides in a castle high in the Alps.

Who this man is… is kind of beside the point. The reason he is supposed to be so important is that he can provide uncanny intelligence information  to the various resistance sects in operation.

The way he does this is obfuscated by the fact that he requires enigmatic film reels which depict other alternate possible realities, perhaps even ones in which the Allies won the war. Where these film reels come from and how they are produced is anybody’s guess. But their effect is palpable.

Imagine growing up in a totalitarian society and being told your whole life that you are lower than your oppressors… only to be shown a depiction of a world where none of this is true. People wander out of movie theaters with misty eyes, wishing that they belonged to the celluloid world they just beheld, instead of this cruel meat world they’re actually bound to.

The beauty of this material is that Philip K. Dick never resorts to giving easy answers or trite summations. His purpose is in spelunking the deep recesses of what it means to be human and alive at the same time. The profundity of his work may be lost on some filmmakers (see: Impostor, Next, Screamers, and yes, PAYCHECK) while others have successfully mined his short stories for mind-bending sci-fi thrills (Minority Report, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau.)  But perhaps the two very best adaptations of his works came from two very distinctive voices in cinema: Ridley Scott and Richard Linklater.

Ridley Scott shot a little movie named Blade Runner, based on a script that was based upon PKD’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1981. PKD himself was able to influence the production of the film and was screened some of the test footage before he passed away. Ridley Scott serves as an executive producer on The Man in the High Castle.

Years later, Richard Linklater shot an adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, a much more true-to-the-book adaptation than most. He utilized rotoscoping techniques to “animate” digital footage of actors and distort their environments.

Both of these films deal with overlapping ideas of self, self-awareness, humanity, and consciousness. In Blade Runner, the story revolves around a cop whose explicit job description is to assassinate robots posing as humans. In A Scanner Darkly, the story revolves around a cop whose explicit job description is to find the purveyors of highy-addictive, mind-alerting drugs and expose them, even as he goes deeper and deeper undercover as a drug-using narc himself.

The climactic scene of The Man in the High Castle, wherein a certain character experiences an unusual sensation as the refrain “round and round” from The Twist by Chubby Checker plays in the background, recalls an inner monologue by Bob Arctor, the main character of A Scanner Darkly,

Time. Suppose, he thought, time is round, like the Earth. You sail west to reach India. They laugh at you, but finally there’s India in front, not behind. In time, maybe the Crucifixion lies ahead of us, as we all sail along, thinking it’s back east.

The First and Second Coming of Christ the same event, he thought; time a cassette loop. No wonder they were sure it’d happen, He’d be back.

This subject matter is heavy and not straightforward. While some storytellers have taken the most basic idea from a PKD story (“A guy can see the future!” = NEXT) and turned it into dumber-than-a-bag-of-hammers pop cinema. Others have taken the material and seen it faithfully translated into a visual medium. The Man in the High Castle is among the pantheon of the best adaptations.

There are numerous references to the novel and the world it depicts, from Nathaniel West to Chubby Checker, to Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. One of the finest additions to the story that is not explicitly lifted from the novel is the character of Obergrüppuenfuhrer John Smith.

MitHC John Smith
Rufus Sewell as Obergrüppenfuhrer Smith

Rufus Sewell is adept at playing malevolent, smoldering characters that can charm in one scene, and appall in another. His portrayal of an American collaborator-turned-SS official is chilling, warm, terrifying, and sympathetic all in one go. He is one of the best characters on the show.

Nazis are too often relegated to the dust-bin of history as the go-to bad-guys. But why? They were people. They had life, they had goals and aspirations. They had rationales for why they did what they did. The ideological tenets of the Nazi Order are rarely discussed today. But they did appeal to a large swath of the German populace at one point. They seized power without a majority representation in the Reichstag. And they built one of the most fearsome military-industrial empires the world has ever seen. How did they do this?

Rufus Sewell’s character shines a light into the darkest corners of the Schutzstaffel and the Nazi war machine. He also creates a believable antagonist who feels deep conviction that his beliefs are supported by the predominance of the Nazi regime. The evil that they embodied is given a whole new life through his character’s journey through season 1. Chilling.

There is expository dialogue and some waffle-y character motivations at certain junctures in the storytelling. However, these minor missteps do not detract from the overall success of the world-building that has been done. The alternate reality presented in The Man in the High Castle is believable, detailed, and holistic.

And ultimately… in question.

As Robert Arctor muses in A Scanner Darkly,

“But a photo can get accidentally reversed, too, if the negative is flipped – printed backward; you usually can tell only if there’s writing. But not with a man’s face. You could have two contact prints of a given man, one reversed, one not. A person who’d never met him couldn’t tell which was correct, but he could see they were very different and couldn’t be superimposed.

“Then it shall come to pass the saying that is written,” a voice said. “Death is swallowed up. In victory.” perhaps only Fred heard it. “Because,” the voice said, “as soon as the writing appears backward, then you know which is illusion and which is not. The confusion ends, and death, the last enemy, Substance Death, is swallowed not down into the body, but up – in victory. Behold I tell you the sacred secret now: we shall not all sleep in death.”

And back to Bridge of Spies with Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, we have a summation of the rationale behind why a stubborn man who will cling to his beliefs can withstand the provocations of the enemy.

“This one time, I was at the age of your son, our house is overrun by partisan boarder guards. Dozen of them. My father was beaten, my mother was beaten, and this man, my father’s friend, he was beaten. And I watched this man. Every time they hit him, he stood back up again. Soldier hit him harder, still he got back to his feet. I think because of this they stopped the beating and let him live… “Stoikiy muzhik”. Which sort of means like a “standing man”… Standing man…” Rudolf Abel, portrayed by Mark Rylance

At the end of The Man in the High Castle, most of the characters are reeling from the events of season 1. But one of them… Nobosuke Tagomi… is on a park bench, and he stands up. The Man in the High Castle may be watching, after all. Who knows what accounting he shall give…

Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. ~ Ephesians 6:11

The world is filled with pretend rulers and false kings. In the end… only what is true will survive.

Count me excited for Season 2 of The Man in the High Castle next year.

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