I find alternate history fascinating. Wondering about that elusive what if. Imagining hypothetical situations is, in fact, one of my favourite pastimes. What would have happened if the Syrian father of Steve Jobs had not immigrated to the United States? What would have happened if Mahatma Gandhi had stayed in South Africa? What would have happened if the British had not come to India?
Contemplating such situations is tempting to me, but sadly I don’t have the means to experience the life in those parallel worlds that must surely be lurking just beyond my perception. Also, while these situations are important they are but insignificant what ifs as compared to what is called the hypothetical Axis victory in World War II.
Times Square under Nazis
Those who have read enough of what occurred in World War II know how close Germany and Japan came to subjugate Eurasia. So many things could have gone catastrophically wrong. The United States might not have intervened. Colonial soldiers enlisted in the British Army might have refused to fight. And so on. So how the world might have looked like had the Axis powers won? Enters The Man in the High Castle.
Based (loosely, Wikipedia says) on Philip M. Dick’s 1962 novel, this Amazon Original series explores probably the most important what if one can imagine. I am sure we all are sick of American hawkish foreign policy and imperialistic tendencies, not to mention its Big Brotherly deep state. But we should still be grateful that it was Uncle Sam and its allies who won the war. The current reality is far lesser of the two evils.
American Reich flag.
In The Man in the High Castle, the Axis powers won the World War II. The United States was divided between the Nazis and Imperial Japanese into two parts that are called Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States respectively. There is a thin strip between the two regions that is lawless and called the Neutral Zone. The year is 1962. Although Japan and German were allies in the war, there is a tension between the two, not too different from the Cold War tensions that dominated the political landscape of much of the latter half of last century. To end the war, German had decimated the American capital Washington DC including Pentagon.
Even though it is alternate history, The Man in the High Castle is not escapist in the sense that the world is so well-realised that it is perturbing. Nothing seems fantastical, all thanks to top-notch world building and production values. And also the fact breathing down your neck that what we are witnessing almost happened.
Both the Nazis and the Japanese are not surprisingly totalitarian regimes and unflinching in their cruelty. Small acts of resistance prompt utter destruction of not only the perpetrators but also their families and even friends. Both the regimes are looking for a mysterious man who few have seen. He calls himself The Man in the High Castle. This man might hold the thread to the last of the resistance in America.
More mysterious than the man himself, however, are the films he either propagates or collects or maybe both. Those films show different realities. The what ifs I was talking about. The Führer himself is interested in these films. One of those show Allied powers winning the war and the United States dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Funny, huh?
Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) is a woman who has made peace with the life under Japanese occupied San Francisco. She gets entangled with the resistance and the films thanks to her sister and becomes wanted by the Imperial authorities. Her boyfriend does not want anything to do with the resistance and tries to discourage her, but gets involved himself anyway when he becomes the topmost target of Kempeitai – the Imperial Japanese police.
Then there is Japanese Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. He is one of the few morally upright men in Japanese high command. “Perhaps too good for this world,” as his assistant tells him. He wants to live in a better world and is unusually kind to those beneath him. He concocts a conspiracy with the help of a Nazi official having a similar line of thinking to stop the hostilities between Japan and German using the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The performance by the venerable Tagawa is brilliant – measured, thoughtful, and wise.
Obergruppenführer John Smith
British actor Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer (try saying that thrice continuously) John Smith who is a loyal Nazi – the highest ranking German official in America. He is utterly ruthless, not only towards subversive elements but also to his political opponents. But he is also fiercely dedicated to his family, a loving husband and father – the quality that humanises him. As far as villains go, John Smith is pretty compelling and I found myself rooting for him at times even though he is a Nazi through and through.
If you were wondering whether to subscribe to Amazon Prime Video, The Man in the High Castle is a very valid reason to make the jump. I’m not underrating other Amazon Originals (like my personal favourite American Gods), but this show is unlike anything you have seen and really very necessary in this era of militant nationalism and burgeoning authoritarianism. Of course, there are many good alternate history television shows and movies, but none as relevant as The Man in the High Castle. It is not only high quality television but also a timely reminder of how the world would look like if we let fascism win.