American Nostalgia

On Amazon's 'The Man in the High Castle'

American Nostalgia

THE OPENING CREDITS of The Man in the High Castle — the new television series produced by Amazon Studios and released in its first season this past November — begin with the clicking whirr of a film projector and a corona of white light that illuminates the dust and smoke suspended in its path. For most of us who will watch the series, streaming digital video on our televisions or our tablets, the sequence triggers something from our past, but what exactly? I am willing to hazard that most of Amazon’s core audience have never actually fumbled with the hard edges of celluloid film, patiently threaded its reels onto the arms of a projector, and then listened to the machine spring to life. Fewer of us even watch films regularly in theaters any more. So why does that sound resonate so powerfully?

The evocation and manipulation of collective memory are at the center of The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel of the same title by Frank Spotnitz. The series tells an alternate history of the United States in a world in which the Axis powers have triumphed in World War II and divided North America. A map of the United States shows the Greater Nazi Reich covers the eastern half of the country and the Japanese Pacific States occupies the western coast. A neutral zone in the Rocky Mountains divides the two empires.

Set in 1962, the year Dick published his novel, the action of the series sprawls across all three of these domains. Its plot is loosely, sometimes clumsily, held together by a film (or perhaps set of films) circulating under the title The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In Dick’s novel, Grasshopper is in fact another novel — one that the characters read, debate, and even quote to one another. In the adaptation, copies of the film are subversive objects, passed among operatives of a struggling resistance, prohibited by the Japanese, and sought by soldiers of the Reich. In the first episode, the viewers get a fleeting glimpse at Grasshopper, which turns out to be a pastiche of newsreel footage meant to be as familiar to the series’ audience as it is foreign to the characters; it shows familiar images of the Allies’s triumph in World War II: the landing at D-Day, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri.

The few seconds that these images appear in the context of The Man in the High Castle reveal something of the affective power of alternate history. The genre offers us a chance to recognize our historical lexicon spoken in strange accents, just unfamiliar enough to achieve a certain distance but sufficiently close to yield to the frisson of comprehension. More than the newsreels themselves, the camera lingers on the face of Juliana Crain (played by Alexa Davalos), the series’ leading character who watches them in rapture. Her ecstatic viewing does more than reinforce our understanding of the daily subjugation she experiences as a white American living in Japanese-ruled San Francisco. It is an open invitation to regard our own past with renewed wonder.

Visual pleasure matters a great deal to The Man in the High Castle, which takes full advantage of the technical and financial resources available in the age of peak television. Reviewers have uniformly praised the way the creators adapted familiar settings, particularly New York and San Francisco, to produce a convincing, detailed world that is both recognizable and disorienting. Nearly every article on the series mentions the establishing shot of Times Square, where a swastika has replaced the familiar Coca-Cola advertisement and the slogans of the Reich appear almost casually in city lights.

It is a signature moment because it crystalizes the strange kind of nostalgia that drives the series. We have never seen Times Square like this; in fact, few us have ever seen the Times Square of 1962. Yet we have absorbed countless photographs, paintings, and films that use precisely that setting, so when it is revealed on the screen we take an immediate pleasure in being able to understand how the Nazi rulers of New York manipulated it — and in realizing how, in fact, the bright neon of Nazi red seems right at home there.

During the course of its 10 episodes, The Man in the High Castle leans heavily on the iconography of Americana. A partial list might include the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Rushmore, the Rocky Mountains, small town diners, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Billie Holiday, and Sitting Bull. There is a Long Island family scripted straight from Father Knows Best that celebrates Nazi holidays with apple pie and fireworks. A decrepit, broken town in the neutral zone is terrorized by a shotgun-wielding, duster-wearing marshal who speaks in a guttural drawl that borders on a campy imitation of Clint Eastwood. This refashioning of American popular culture is not merely incidental, but integral, to the plot of the series. One of the main characters works in a factory that produces replica Colt .45 pistols; another sells Americana — or “American traditional ethnic art” — to Japanese collectors. By inserting symbols of our national culture into its alternate universe, The Man in the High Castle returns the past to us wrapped in the most precious quality of our contemporary life, novelty. Even our nostalgia, it seems, can be new and improved.

The Man in the High Castle traffics in a type of perverse pleasure, carefully reimagining our blood-soaked history so that it is even bloodier and crueller. The script of The Man in the High Castle calls for us to be reminded periodically of the horrors that a German triumph would have entailed: we hear about the incineration of the disabled and the elderly, about anti-Semitic lynch mobs in Boston, and (finally, in the eighth episode) the enslavement of Africa. But rather than recoiling from such horrors, the series presses on, inviting us to revel in the material culture — the carefully designed costumes, architecture, and streetscapes of Spotnitz’s mise-en-scène — of those who survive them.

Dick’s original novel focused as well on the quotidian in American life under Japanese occupation. (Curiously, Dick did not set any scenes in the German-governed Reich.) It also reads like an ersatz collection of Dick’s interests at the time of his writing: jewelry-making, the I Ching, and the internecine politics of the Nazis, which Dick picked up from a reading of William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. These all get a nod from Spotnitz, but he has moderated some of the novel’s excesses.

What the book and Amazon’s television series share is an intense interest in how the racial hierarchy of an occupied America would operate. In Dick’s novel the portrait of race and racism is finely grained. American whites vacillate between their repulsion and admiration of the Japanese ruling class; some even take to using sun lamps to darken their skin. For their part, the Japanese take their superiority for granted yet express profound interest in the pre-war artifacts of American mass culture.

Some, though not all, of these details find their way onto the screen adaptation. But Spotnitz makes full use of the visual medium to create something easier done in 2015 than it might have been in 1962 — echoes of our own history of racial discrimination. On the streets of San Francisco, we see white men and women lower their eyes before better-dressed, wealthier Japanese; we see whites wait for store clerks and taxicabs while the needs of Japanese patrons are being met.

Indeed, in its inversion of the history of American racism, the series goes beyond replaying the 20th-century history of segregation we know too well. In this alternate universe, the governing regimes of North America are surveillance states. Throughout the series, we see white Americans being required to produce identification papers, having their phone conversations recorded, and subject to police intrusion in their homes. In 2015, to display white bodies — instead of, or at least in addition to, black and brown ones — vulnerable to this kind of interrogation and state-sponsored violence resonates as a progressive critique of our contemporary world. It is perhaps no accident that the script calls for the main characters of the American resistance to live under the Japanese, instead of the Germans, so that the series can make use of a racialized palette that capsizes the one we know all too well.

But to conclude that The Man in the High Castle offers a progressive critique of American racial violence would be to miss something signficant about the series. Perhaps the most important change that has been made to the original novel is the introduction of a resistance movement — the shadowy organization that passes subversive films and links all of the characters together. There is no such movement in Dick’s novel, nor even any hint of one. The producer of the series, Isa Dick-Hackett, has said in interviews that this change was necessary to get the project into production, and it is easy to see why. The resistance gives the series’ writers a full arsenal of tropes and tricks from the canon of spy thrillers. We get undercover agents, secret assignations, and hidden microfilm.

We also get torture. The initial episodes revolve around the brutalization of two white characters — the leader of a resistance cell in New York (who is killed) and a San Francisco man who, we are told, has a Jewish grandfather (who survives). As if this were not enough, white men, women, and even children are killed in the first half of the series by methods as diverse as public hanging and Zyklon-B gas. By the end of the season, Juliana Crain confirms the death of her half-sister by finding her body in an open, mass grave of largely white victims of the Japanese state.

This display of white bodies under the duress of violence is the bedrock of an identity politics that The Man in the High Castle makes available to its viewers. Notably, African Americans act only in a supporting role here. They fight in the resistance, logically, but occupy only a small amount of screen time. (At least they fare better in the television adaptation than they do in the novel, where Dick has them enslaved in the Pacific States and suffering a worse fate in the South. I presume this element of Dick’s vision was simply too terrible for the Amazon team to bring to the screen.) In the scenes in San Francisco, they are relegated to the background, and of course they are entirely absent from the Reich of New York.

The Man in the High Castle, in other words, returns white bodies to center stage in our national drama. It tells an imagined history of mid-century America that places white men and women in the position they once enjoyed before the revisionist history of the post-Civil Rights era. One of the most interesting gaps in the narrative arc of the television series is that no character ever explains what, exactly, the resistance movement is fighting for. We know that they oppose the governments of the Reich and the Japanese empire. We witness Juliana’s near religious faith in the subversive films to reveal a different world. Yet none of the watchwords that one would suppose to be the stock-in-trade of an American independence movement — freedom, liberty, democracy — get any real air time. The characters in the resistance are against their oppression, which means that for much of the series we see white characters lamenting the power of darker Asians, but they never specify what they actually hope to achieve.

In this respect, The Man in the High Castle translates onto the screen what might be the most potent political sentiment of our contemporary moment. The resistance movement of the television series captures, unwittingly, a generalized mood among many working-class and middle-class American whites that the time has come for them to throw off the shackles of a multicultural, politically-correct elite. A significant portion of white Americans believe they have been disadvantaged by the globalization of capitalism and the domestic valorization of diversity. Like Juliana Crain, they look at the footage from the mid-century United States with admiration and envy, and they wonder how and when the country went wrong. The distorted nostalgia that drives The Man in the High Castle is an ideal match for this pervasive mood. Like the subversive resistance fighters in the series, a substantial, perhaps growing number of Americans are convinced that they must act to take their country “back” — both back to some previous, unspecified moment and back from some generalized but ill-defined enemy.

For this reason, The Man in the High Castle provides an allegory for our own political dystopia. It gives us a drama of the American ressentiment that has dominated and bedeviled national political discourse at least since the advent of the Tea Party — though its broader influence goes beyond any single candidate or political party. In the alternate history of this television series, white Americans occupy the spotlight of oppression; they have no need to worry about the possibility of offending racial minorities, Muslims, or anyone else; they are never asked to check their privilege.

Yet to dismiss the series as reactionary would also be a grave mistake. In its alternate history, we can both see a mirror of our history of racial repression and a drama of white subjugation. No American need be excluded here from the moral authority of suffering and marginalization. What the series has captured, in other words, is a moment in which claims to victimhood pervade our politics, motivated by emotions that cannot be easily contained or managed. It has required more than 40 years to bring Dick’s novel to the screen, and perhaps that is because a majority of Americans are ready now to participate in a perverse fantasy of suffering. Only a nation that celebrates its triumphalism so openly could offer such dark pleasures of defeat.


Michael A. Elliott is Professor of English at Emory University.

LARB Contributor

Michael A. Elliott is Professor of English at Emory University.


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