Based on: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Producer: Amazon Studios, Scott Free, Headline Pictures and Electric Shepherd Productions
Director: David Semel
Writer: Philip K. Dick (based on short story), Frank Spotnitz (written for television)
Starring: Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank
Distributor: Amazon Video
Genre: Drama, Military and War, Historical, Science Fiction
Philip K. Dick was an American science-fiction writer, born on December 16, 1928. During his lifetime, he published 36 novels and 121 short stories, with common themes of alternate universes, altered consciousness, and authoritarian governments. Dick died on March 2, 1982. Many films have been based on these works, including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1982 and 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Sony Pictures Televisions produced Electric Dreams in 2017, based on the works of Dick.
In 2015, Amazon Prime released an adaptation of the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel The Man in the High Castle. The series depicts an alternate history 1962, in which the Axis powers were victorious in World War II. The United States is divided up into the Greater Nazi Reich (most territories east of the Rocky Mountains), the neutral zone (the Rocky Mountains), and the Japanese Pacific States (territories west of the Rocky Mountains). This Amazon Original series has been nominated for three 2017 Emmy Awards.
Violence/Scary Images: Fights/brawls including martial arts fight; intense violence/gore, including gunfight with blood, execution-style shooting to the back of the head, use of attack dogs; torture of a man, including hanging him up and beating him until he is bloody and dead; intense images including the ashes of disabled and mentally ill people.
Language/Crude Humor: Two uses of religious profanity (Jesus); four mild obscenities (h***, c**p, d**n); three scatological terms; one anatomical term; one derogatory term, including b-word and seven racial slanders against Asians; one F-word; character jokes around about sex.
Sexual Content: Boyfriend and girlfriend hug and kiss; also talk about having kids.
Drug/Alcohol use: Lead characters drink at a bar.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Talk of torture, including “cracking” genitalia and plucking fingernails; talk of “blowing” someone’s brains out; Nazi imagery, including the Nazi salute and the Swastika; talk of nuclear war; genocide and totalitarian regimes.
Positive Content: A discussion on World War II, Allied vs. Axis, and other historical events.
Episode 1, The New World, starts with Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) in the theater while watching an old propaganda film. Someone then secretly gives him a card. The location is New York City, 1962, but America doesn’t exist. In this alternate timeline, the Greater Nazi Reich is in control.
Joe heads to a factory and meets the manager, Warren. Warren leads an underground resistance group. Fervent, Joe wants to help the Resistance, but his youth discourages Warren. The Resistance leader also warns Joe of possible torture if captured, but gives the passionate young man the job regardless. Joe is tasked with delivering a package from New York City to Canon City, in the neutral Rocky Mountains States. As Joe prepares to leave, Nazi soldiers raid the factory for the Resistance members. They kill the majority of factory workers and capture Warren. But, Joe manages to drive away.
On the West coast, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) practices Aikido in San Francisco. The Japanese control the States west of the Rocky Mountains, which are now called the Japanese Pacific States. As Juliana buys medicine from a Japanese shop, she has a very fortuitous conversation with her sister Trudy. Juliana meets her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) later in a bar. Frank notes the Jewish heritage of his grandfather and his fear of being found out. His best friend, Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls), enters as a news report shows Hitler is still alive. But, Ed points out the possibility of Parkinson’s disease due to the Führer’s shaking hand. He believes Hitler won’t live much longer and his successor will destroy the West Coast with the H-Bomb.
A GLIMPSE OF A BETTER WORLD
Juliana leaves the bar and runs into her sister Trudy again, who gives her a package. Japanese soldiers then chase Trudy and shoot her off-screen. Juliana manages to escape and opens up the package, which contains a newsreel. The reel testifies to the Allies’ victory in World War II, showing Roosevelt and Churchill. She watches this reel over and over again.
Frank enters, and Juliana explains the content of the footage. He calls the footage fake, probably made by the Man in the High Castle. This mysterious anti-fascist figure creates films that make it look like the Allies won. Fearful, Frank insists the footage be destroyed, as it is treason. However, Joanne insists on delivering the package to Canon City, substituting for her sister. Frank derides her decision, instead wanting to report the footage to police.
At the Nazi Embassy in the Japanese Pacific States, Ambassador Hugo Reiss and SS Officer Kurt Scausch meet with the Embassy to Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi and his Kotomichi. The alliance between the Japanese and the Nazis is on shaky ground. The Japanese know of Hitler’s declining health and question if peace will continue with his successor.
At Riker’s Island Prison in New York, Obergruppenführer John Smith supervises the torture of Warren. Warren is bloody and bruised; John Smith knows of the Resistance truck and its destination. On the road, Joe’s truck has a blowout. A Nazi police officer helps him and confirms his transit papers. Both discuss their respective military background (Joe about his father and the police officer himself in the military). The police officer even says, “I can’t even remember what we were fighting for.” At that moment, ash slowly rains down on the entire scene. Joe asks about it and the police officer says it is from the hospital burning the terminally ill and crippled, as they put a “drag on the state.”
THE COMING STORM
Juliana finds Randall, another resistance member at a bus station. She boards the bus towards Canon City. At an airport, a secret meeting is held between Tagomi and Rudolph Wegener. Though denied in public, Wegener states both of the potential Führer’s successors think the petition of the Americas was a mistake. Wegener informs Tagomi the Nazis will take the Pacific states back by nuclear force once Hitler dies.
Juliana continues to travel from San Francisco to Canon City. Her belongings are stolen, but she manages to keep the newsreel on her person. Joe also crosses Nazi state lines into the neutral zone. Joe discovers a hidden compartment under the truck; the compartment contains a package, and the package is another newsreel. Back in Riker’s Island Prison, Smith continues to oversee the torture of Warren. He rebukes a guard for ceasing to flog the Resistance leader, and the guard resumes his torture. Smith plans to dump Warren’s dead body for Resistance leaders to assume the Nazi’s are ignorant of the truck’s destination.
In San Francisco, Inspector Kido is investigating Trudy and by connection Juliana. He goes to Frank’s apartment with armed guards. The inspector grows suspicious of Frank, but leaves. Kido also warns Frank the penalties for perjury are severe.
Warren’s dead body is dropped off on the street. Inspector Kido captures and beats Frank. Randall is cornered by the Japanese soldiers. Tagomi confers with the Oracle. Juliana meets up with Joe, but she does not know the Resistance sent him. The episode ends with Joe talking with Smith on a phone, revealing he is a Nazi spy trying to expose the Resistance.
Whenever I watch the first episode of anything, I always ask myself the same question: Does this episode make me want to see more? In the case of High Castle, it does. The production quality and acting both exceeded my expectations for Amazon Video. On a weird note, I really appreciate the opening. Not only does the haunting rendition of “Edelwiess” set the tone, but the graphic map visually shows the nature of this world. The viewer can easily grasp what occurred from the start.
This first episode contains superb acting. I am always fond of a strong female lead done right, and it seems like Alexa Davalos will be able to deliver. Rufus Sewell is threatening as the SS officer John Smith. Even the fearful reaction of the torture guard conveys his character. It was also fun seeing DJ Qualls, as he was popular back when I was younger. The most striking scene involves the “Nazi” police officer, his forgetting of why America fought in the War and the subsequent rain of human ash. Some may call it heavy-handed, but I cannot deny the effectiveness of the message. The ending plot twist with Joe Blake serves as a curious cliffhanger to draw me into the next episode.
I am not familiar with the source material for High Castle. But, the trope is a classic: What would the world be like if the Axis Powers won World War II? As a film teacher, one of my students wrote a screenplay regarding the same question and we actually produced a short. As a child, the 90’s series Sliders helped break me into the genre of multiple universes. I am fond of it. I strongly believe part of the intrigue from all of these stories comes from contemplating the divergences (at least at the start). The audience can safely spot the differences and wonder how they came to be. In the case of High Castle, horror replaces wonder, considering the brutality of the Nazi regime.
For how long High Castle will maintain this intrigue is another question. Part of the initial strength of Sliders’ alternate universe trope was following the characters (and the viewer) as they visited a new world every week. We explored the divergence of each world and moved onto the next one. Of course, comparing Sliders to High Castle is a stretch. Nevertheless, after the world building and novelty of the shocking divergence ends, I hope the story and characters of High Castle will continue to capture my attention. Considering the praise from both reviewers and friends, this hope may be fulfilled.
Back in my college days, I had the chance to interview a Holocaust survivor for my college newspaper. It was part of a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on Genocide. The then 79-year-old man described how he saw the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. He was born in Germany and his father owned a café. In November 1938, during the events of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), his family’s café was ransacked.
The Holocaust survivor described how the young Nazi party burned almost every synagogue and arrested every man from 18 to 65 and sent them to concentration camps. Even his father was sent to a concentration camp, but a higher official managed to get him out. The survivor’s family managed to write letters to relatives in America and arranged an escape in 1941. They took a train to Lisbon, a boat to Casablanca, and boarded a ship to America.
It was a sobering interview. But, there was one question I asked…the answer to which I did not put in the school newspaper. It was a personal question forwarded by my pastor who himself had a background in Messianic Judaism. He wanted me to ask the Holocaust survivor about the Church in Germany during the events leading up to genocide. The survivor simply responded the Church could have prevented much of what happened, but it did nothing.
The fiction of High Castle is a reflection of real history from our world. It is almost impossible to not bring up the quote often assigned to Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.” There were some German Christians that did stand up to the Nazi regime; for example, the Nazi Party killed Dietrich Bonhoeffer for dissenting. But, the majority were silent. Likewise, the modern Church must speak against the evils of its day and stand up for truth, even if it isn’t popular. Bonhoeffer truly lived out (and died in) the words of Jesus from Matthew 10:28, where he states, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” The old saying remains true: If we do not learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.
The Bottom Line
Episode 1 of High Castle accomplishes its goal. It is an interesting and simple setup; New World builds this alternate history with high production quality, strong characters, and powerful imagery. Some of the material will offend, with racial slurs, swastikas, and violence. Considering the brutality of the Nazi regime, I only expect it to get worse. Overall, it is a good thought experiment that I hope will cause viewers to consider their actions and what evil they permit.