Through the haze and bustle of New York City, a new Nazi flag hangs in Times Square. Red and white stripes intact, a swastika now replaces the once-pristine, glowing white stars. In the next frame, the slogan, “Work Will Set You Free,” graces a Broadway marquee. The German, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” once hung on the gates of Auschwitz.
Full of rebellion and grit, “The Man in the High Castle,” a new television series, poses an unsettling question: ‘What if the axis of evil won World War II?’
The series, now available to stream through Amazon’s video service, has garnered a large following and critical acclaim. Scoring a 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it thoroughly explores the crossover between historical and science fiction. Though the overlap is admittedly slim, “The Man in the High Castle,” is a suspenseful and engaging series.
Frank Spotnitz, director of “The X-Files,” adapted the series, with significant changes, from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. In this world, Hitler (still alive, but feeble) got the atomic bomb and dropped it on Washington. The Axis partitioned North America: the Nazi Reich in the East, the Japanese Pacific States in the West and a no-man’s-land buffer zone in the Rocky Mountains.
The series is studded with exceptional visual detail, and the worlds created on-screen are as realistic as they come. The Nazi East is a brutally well-ordered, high-tech Aryan wonderland; the Pacific is more traditionalist. Only in the “neutral zone,” the area between east and west, do you see black and brown faces. Racial minorities, gays and Jews are doomed in the Reich, and barely tolerated in the Pacific.
The political landscape is interesting, with some Americans reluctantly submitting to the fascist rule, like a Missouri highway cop who explains to a passer-by a gentle snow of falling ash.
“That’s the hospital,” he said. “Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill. Drag on the state.” Set in the 1960s, the show follows a few key characters, all with differing political views, to show each perspective in the new American territories.
Rufus Sewell, playing American Nazi officer John Smith, captures the role, and advances through military ranks through devious and conniving means. A family man at heart, the series pushes its viewers to sympathize with a man, who, though dangerous, is just trying to protect his family.
Alexa Davalos provides a captivating performance as Juliana Crain, mercenary and resistance fighter, who is both seductive and dangerous. As the show progresses the character becomes more audacious, coming into her own with a quiet assurance.
Her boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), an artist under a regime that considers modern art “degenerate,” keeps his head low. He’s of Jewish ancestry, though he considers himself secular, and “Jews,” as a Japanese official tells him, “don’t get to decide if they’re Jews.” Over the course of the three seasons, this character alters the most with the scenery, from being a quiet factory worker, to a resistance operative, to an artist whose message becomes the face of the resistance.
“Man in the High Castle” attempts to examine an alternate course of history, but while the characters are strong and the world-building captivating, it fails to deliver much in the way of storytelling. The themes, in theory, are strong — multiculturalism political tension and mysticism — but as the various storylines ebb and flow, the series gets lost. It is difficult to know its message, as its narrative is focused on an ensemble of characters who interact with varying levels of tension and interest. Either way, the visuals are stunning, but as a viewer, it is easy to get lost in the haze.