‘The Man in the High Castle’ and the Alluring Spectacle of Fascism

The show seems more interested in provocative images than any of its characters.

It’s a terrible irony that the catchiest song in Cabaret, a musical drama set in Berlin in the 1930s, is the white nationalist anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” In a chilling scene, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Hitler Youth spontaneously sings the song — written by Jewish composers John Kander and Fred Ebb — in an outdoor café. For some reason, this is the song that remains in my head whenever I watch the movie — or, lately, anytime at all.

I’d been waiting for the song to show up in The Man in the High Castle, and in its recent second season, it does. The Amazon original drama is based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of same name, an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II and the United States has been divided into two puppet states, one operated by the Nazis (in the east) and one by the Japanese Imperial forces (west of the Rockies). A neutral buffer zone lies between them.

Had Donald Trump not been elected president, the show would be easy to dismiss as a plot-heavy drag with unmemorable characters. But in the wake of his election — not to mention the media attention that enabled his win — it’s hard to watch The Man in the High Castle without sensing the same morbid fascination with the outward signifiers of fascism that’s currently plaguing so many media outlets.

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The Man in the High Castle, which is set in the 1960s, is a great concept with a bad execution. The series follows several far-flung characters: Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos), a native San Franciscan who’s happy enough living under Japanese rule until her sister is murdered and she starts asking questions; her boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), an artist with a Jewish background; Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), an SS agent posing as a resistance fighter; and Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), an all-American Nazi whose allegiances are tested when his son is diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy — a condition that’s literally a death sentence, since the state executes people with disabilities, or “useless eaters.” The title character refers to a mysterious man who collects newsreels that show a kind of alternate reality in which the Allied powers won the war.

It sounds like a recipe for a complex, thoughtful thriller, but in practice, The Man in the High Castle is a slog; there are too many plotlines to keep track of, spread out amongst characters who are often barely distinguishable. Juliana, Joe, and Frank, the young resisters, should be arguments in and of themselves against the restrictive forces of fascism: dynamic, vibrant, and human. Instead, they look like J. Crew models and feel like mouthpieces for “doing the right thing,” while the bad guys — particularly Sewell’s Smith — are much more compelling.

The show is so frankly boring that the plot and characters feel like mere excuses for the production design, which is the real draw here. The show awes with the spectacle of fascism in America, the visual punch of all those swastikas atop New York City buildings and the conspicuous lack of brown and black faces anywhere other than the resource-depleted neutral zone. The Man in the High Castle seems more interested in these kind of deliberately provocative images than any of its characters, particularly the ones who suffer the most under the fascist regime.

And yet, decades of World War II movies and photographs seem to have desensitized us to the sights and sounds of Nazi Germany; with time, those long black leather coats start to look more like vintage fashion statements than terrifying symbols of the Third Reich. In recent weeks, media outlets have published one profile after another of white nationalist leaders, capitalizing on the sinister allure of these figures and emphasizing their ordinary looks. In a New York Times article on a new A&E docu-series airing in January called Generation KKK, the network’s manager emphasized the show’s “promise of redemption.” Profiles of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer invariable mention his “dapper,” buttoned-up look. Neo-Nazis — they’re just like us!

The Man in the High Castle is at its most chilling not when it zooms in on the Nazi paraphernalia, but when it shows us a more familiar, ordinary scene: John Smith sitting around the breakfast table with his family in his comfortable Long Island home, an image that wouldn’t be out of place in early seasons of Mad Men. In the show’s most powerful scene, from the pilot episode, a highway cop nonchalantly explains that the white ash falling from the sky is coming from a nearby hospital. “Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill,” he shrugs. “Drag on the state.”

The entertainment and news media industries aren’t doing us any favors by covering the actual rise of white nationalism as if it’s a movie about the rise of white nationalism, with an emphasis on the dangerous yet thrilling ride we’re all about to take. That’s an insultingly disingenuous stance, one that ignores the reality that many Americans are facing literal danger as a result of the coming regime change, not the vicarious kind you get from watching a CGI-enhanced explosion on a screen. Are we waiting for Nazi flags to be draped over the White House columns before we’ll acknowledge the freedoms we’re losing right here, right now? Or will we be too busy craning our necks to see if the latest avatar of white supremacy is wearing a pocket square?

Look around and you’ll see countless sly acknowledgements that Trump and his goons are dangerous for America — and that this also makes them great for business. Soon after the election, The Hollywood Reporter published a fawning profile of alt-right media scion and Trump advisor Steve Bannon, promoting the piece on Twitter with Bannon’s claim that “Darkness is good…Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” MSNBC is using Trump’s incredibly dodgy capriciousness to lure viewers into watching its news coverage, teasing, “What will he do? What won’t he do? This is why you watch.” As New York editor Joe Hagan wrote on Twitter, “This ad nails everything that is wrong with the media. Fascism as ratings spectacle.”

Those of us hoping for a vigorous opposition movement can complain about the lack of vision from leaders on the left — a failure to counter the far right’s romantic hallucination of an army of white men rising up to defend themselves against a tide of immigrants, people of color, Muslims, and LGBTQ. But judging by the charcoal-grey dystopias that continue to capture the public’s imagination — despite Transparent’s critical acclaim, The Man in the High Castle is Amazon’s most-watched original series — the creators of our popular culture are also having a hard time picturing a bright future. The Man in the High Castle is an implicit if unintentional acknowledgement of this lack of imagination, directing our gaze not at human beings struggling to live their lives in the face of authoritarian rule, but at the chilling spectacle of the Statue of Liberty giving a Nazi salute.