Move over Transparent. Enter The Man in the High Castle. Same team.
With The Man in the High Castle, Amazon continues its steadfast march to produce the buzziest content in all of the kingdom of Hollywood, with its latest new offering in an increasingly impressive (and, if the Golden Globe nominations are any clue, award-worthy) line-up. Its new dramatic series, an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, makes neat use of the public’s several-years (and counting) obsession with repressive, semi-fascist dystopias (see: The Hunger Games; Divergent), but rather than focusing on a single teenage girl messiah in some unspecified time in the future, as most of these YA-dominated franchises tend to do, The Man in the High Castle asks a more realistic, more adult, and far more chilling question: What would America be like if the Nazis had won the war?
Divided, the answer seems to be—specifically the West Coast, including San Francisco, where the bulk of the show is based—and under a relatively benign occupation by the Japanese, who display an endearing interest in American culture. (One of the show’s main characters, Frank Fink (Rupert Evans) runs a tidy trade selling forged pieces of antique Americana to eager Japanese collectors while hiding his Jewish roots that will mean certain extradition and death.) The Germans control everything east of the Rockies with characteristic brutality, and boast among their ranks plenty of homegrown American SS officers, including the brutal and brutally efficient Obergrüppenführer John Smith, who is played by Rufus Sewell with his usual intelligent and serpentine charm. And I’ll say this: I’ve watched a lot of movies about the Holocaust, and I’ve always been mildly annoyed when American and/or British actors playing Nazis who speak English with German accents when really, they would all be speaking German and would have no accent at all. The Man in the High Castle has shown me for the first time why this convention exists: because frankly, seeing an Nazi speak with an American accent is too scary.
So too is the terrifying and brilliant way the show melds fascist imagery with American symbols. Just look at the American flag that flies over what in this detailed alternate history—it’s 1962; Hitler is still alive although slowly dying from Parkinson’s disease; FDR has been assassinated; a hinted at nuclear attack on Washington D.C. led the USA’s final capitulation—is termed the Greater Nazi Reich and see if a chill doesn’t go through you. It’s an American flag, unchanged but for the fifty stars replaced by a jaunty white swastika. In an age where a presidential nominee of a major political party is calling for Muslims to be registered and potentially interned, and a protester is dragged out of said nominee’s rally for shouting “Sieg Heil,” the premise of this show suddenly seems all too plausible in the not too distant future; or, should I say, it’s hardly fantasy at all. As Sinclair Lewis once said: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” Look at stage of the Republican debate Wednesday night and tell me you don’t know what he means.
But the most fascinating thing to me about The Man in the High Castle is what its sudden popularity (according to Amazon, its pilot episode is the most-watched piece of original content they have ever produced) tells us about this current moment in the World War II-themed entertainment industrial complex (and if you don’t think that exists, look at the list of Oscar winners over the past three decades and get back to me.) Clearly, the Nazis have lost none of the luster as the absolute worst—and hence, best—bad guys of all time. As more and more of the true stories of war parade across our screens, and in at a time during which all but the very last survivors of the Holocaust have died, it seems we’ve moved into an entertainment age where we can make up our own nightmares, our own stories of what could have happened in mankind’s darkest hour. I’m all for writers and directors using their imagination to keep reminding us of what must never happen again. I just hope, in this case, that fiction stays stranger than truth.
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Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.