Wednesday 24 June 2020

The Man in the High Castle- Updated Review

As I read in the above link of my initial review of The Man in the High Castle I can sense my own uncertainty. Is it fair to judge an entire series from just the first two episodes? I think not; so I decided I would watch a couple more; and by the end of the week I had binge-watched the entire four season programme. I pretty soon totally changed my mind about it. It is a gripping story in an excellently constructed setting. The production design is fascinating and the costumes outstanding. The producers thought hard about what the American Nazi uniforms would look like and I think Hugo Boss himself couldn't have done a better job. The premise is that the entire history of the world changed on the 15th of February 1933 when Giuseppe Zangara murdered the president-elect Franklin D Roosevelt. In the real universe Zangara failed and was arrested. The death of Roosevelt caused the entire future to change, including the proceedings and outcome of World War II being entirely different. The characters in the series are secretive and have obscure personalities. Their loyalties are undecided and sometimes changeable, and I found it hard to work out exactly whose side everybody was on. One character, Helen Smith, does a complete about turn from being very partisan towards one side to supporting their bitterest enemies. The heroes and/or villains come across some reels of film that come from parallel universes; some of them are real life archive news footage of the Allies winning World War II. They then go on a quest to find out where the films come from and how they are made with only one clue: "the man in the high castle". The trail eventually leads to the perfect ingredients for pulp sci-fi horror: underground Nazis doing evil experiments to break open the space-time continuum. In fact that part of the story is very original and proficient. There is a secret laboratory in an old mine run by Dr Josef Mengele, a real person known as "the Angel of Death" because of his experimentation on non-consensual live humans from the concentration camps. In the series the same man has built a machine that opens up an interdimensional portal and has a plan for the Nazis to conquer other worlds across the multiverse. This reminds me a lot of the Large Hadron Collider, see: The resistance fighters plan to put a stop to this.

The Man in the High Castle is very absorbing. Some of the characters are delightful, like Hawthorne Abendsen who is very eccentric and free-spirited, rather like Howard Beale from Network, see: Even when he is locked in a Nazi prison he never stops singing cheerful songs as an act of defiance. Another amiable character, Trade Minister Tagomi, is very spiritual and studies the IChing. Although he is Japanese, he is very humanitarian and opposes the occupation of the Pacific States. He is a "traveller", somebody who can teleport between dimensions spontaneously or at will. Several of the characters have this power. The special effects are amazing. The virtual Berlin is the most impressive because it shows what Germania City would have been like. This refers to Adolf Hitler's proposed post-war redevelopment of Berlin. It involved wide streets, parks and tall buildings. The centrepiece is a huge domed arena called "the People's Hall". It is a thousand feet tall and dominates the skyline of Berlin. For obvious reasons it was never built, but the production designers of The Man in the High Castle have recreated it for the series in magnificent realism. There is also a reference to Atlantropa, a construction mega-project to put a dam across the Straits of Gibraltar and drain the Mediterranean Sea. Despite all this pure Aryan grandeur, the post-war Reich has its own underworld though. There is a lesbian club in New York City and a swingers' society in Berlin where people have orgies and take LSD. Some of the storylines are remarkably topical considering they would have to have been concocted before the events they symbolize, a strangely common occurrence in fiction. There is a plan in Nazi America for Jahr Null, literally "Year Zero" in which all the history and memorials of the former United States are destroyed. This includes the demolition of statues... Remind you of anything? See: In one scene there is a national celebration where the Statue of Liberty is pulled down and replaced with a gigantic Nazi sculpture. Following this defacement, gangs wander the streets of New York burning libraries. This is rather like Kristallnacht, a real life incident in November 1938 where Germans went on a nationwide rampage targeting Jews and their homes or businesses. It is also similar to the global riots of 2020. The series shows a very good awareness of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, sometimes known as "M-theory". Philip K Dick was very interested in this idea, see background link above and those below. There are scenes from alternate universes, including our own one, in which the same characters appear, but living different lives. Despite it being such a riveting programme that I was unable to look away from it until I'd watched all forty episodes, some of my initial criticisms remain. In the society depicted, the combination of democratic libertarian elements with fascism makes no sense. On the one hand there exists merciless brutality and even genocide of which no serious attempt is made to hide it from the population. In one scene, one of the characters, Juliana, tries to find the body of her sister who was shot in the first episode. She is led to a mass grave where the Kempeitai, the Japanese state police, dump the corpses of their victims. It is in an open field behind an unlocked gate right beside a bus stop. The aforementioned Helen Smith character also discovers a "secret" document that details how the Reich exterminated its black, Jewish and Hispanic population using gas chambers and crematoria... in a locked office drawer; however, in another scene earlier in the series, as I detail in the background link above, a policeman casually eats his packed lunch while the ashes of dead disabled people fall on him like snow. One of the most tragic scenes in the series is where Rufus Sewell's character, the American Nazi leader John Smith, loses his son to that same eugenics programme. When the time comes to have his two younger daughters tested for "physical imperfections" his wife begs him to try and avoid it. He replies that he must set a good example for the people by obeying the same rules they do. In this way he is a leader accountable to the people, even if it means the death of his children. This doesn't fit in with a fascist regime where corruption is rampant and the elite class set themselves different standards to the populace. I'm pleased to say that the programme is quite politically incorrect. There is a black power movement in the later seasons, but it is fighting back against the oppression of the Japanese, not white people. They even team up with white people to rebel against the "Pons". Leftwing viewers might find that unacceptable. There is a sinister element to the series and the viewer is reminded of it at the beginning of every episode by the chilling titles which include the downbeat performance of Edelweiss, a song written for Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. In this rendition the feel of the song is completely different. All in all, The Man in the High Castle is well worth watching. See here for the trailer:

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