Watching 'Man in the High Castle' as Trump Takes Power

12-14-16 Man in the High Castle
Amazon's 'Man in the High Castle' returns for a second season on December 16, just over a month after the 2016 election and about a month before Donald Trump's inauguration as the 45th President of the United States. The prospect of Trump's America will change how viewers see the show. Liane Hentscher/Amazon Prime Video

A yellow school bus pulls up to a suburban high school. It’s a drab fall day, but the lawns outside are green and neat and the soundtrack to the mostly unremarkable scene is a peppy Paul Anka tune. It’s almost grotesquely stereotypical Americana, but for the swastika on the flag waving on the pole in front of the school. We follow a boy who leads his class in reciting the pledge of allegiance, ending with chants of “Sieg Heil!

The chilling opening scene of Man in the High Castle’s second season, which premieres on Amazon December 16, reintroduces viewers to an alternate history where the Axis powers defeated the Allies in World War II and the Nazis and Japanese have divided rule over the United States. The series navigates the uncanny valley of 1960s America under authoritarian fascist, or imperial, rule. Watching in the aftermath of the recent presidential election, on the precipice of Trump’s America, the series feels different. For one, the students’ jarring daily ritual doesn’t seem so fantastical in a real world in which Richard Spencer and a roomful of white supremacists perform the very same salute and cheer for eerily similar racist ideas.

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“Everyone’s sensitized to the parallels between 2016 and 1933, between present day America,” and Hitler’s rise to power in Weimar Germany, says Gavriel Rosenfeld, a history professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut,whose scholarship focuses on the memory of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. He’s the author of the books The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism and What ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism, regularly incorporating hypothetical questions in his research, because “you can only understand what happened by understanding what could have happened and didn’t.” That’s the background against which people will undoubtedly watch the next installment of the series, he says, and they’ll wonder, “What does it say about America and its potential to go down a very undesirable path?”

The series is based on Philip K. Dick’s famous 1962 novel of the same title, which Rosenfeld dubs the “gateway drug into counterfactual history.” Like other alternate histories, it “addresses universal timeless notions of power of human beings and the importance of human rights,” Brennan Brown, who plays American antiques seller Robert Childan, tells Newsweek. Still, at each point in time—the book’s publication and moments in which the story has had a resurgence into popular culture—its reading is shaped by the contemporary moment. Half a century ago, Dick wrote the book from an anti-fascist perspective, suspicious of Cold War McCarthyism and “very much opposed to any possibility of fascism getting any new life,” Rosenfeld says.

“The entire world was paying attention to crimes of Nazis,” during a period of reawakening in the early 1960s, with the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, the publication of books like William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany and Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews and the opening of the Anne Frank House as a museum in Amsterdam. For more than a decade the U.S. had conveniently neglected the former Nazi enemy in favor of the new Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union. But Dick was “pointing out that the Nazi past does need to be kept in memory,” and that “there is this potential that even America could go down a path toward collaboration,” Rosenfeld says. The author was envisioning “what fate might be in store for us if we don’t maintain democratic principles.”

Season 1 of the Amazon series was released just one week after a series of coordinated terrorist attacks, both shootings and suicide bombings, in Paris in November 2015. The episodes premiered in the midst of a heightened fear of terror in the West, as people were yet again questioning what first amendment rights they might be willing to give up for safety, says executive producer David Zucker. While the second season of the series was written and filmed, the rise of far-right elements in Europe and the refugee crisis continued and the U.S. presidential campaigns were preparing for November 8. Even though Donald Trump had yet to be elected president when the season was being made, it’s nearly impossible to watch now without drawing some dismal connections between the world of the show and what Trump’s America might become.

Executive producer Isa Hackett, who is also Philip K. Dick’s daughter, is interested, postelection, in normalization. “It’s an anti-fascist message obviously in the novel, as [it] is the show,” she says. “I’m hoping that people see the show and give some thought to the insidious way that fascism can slip by us if we’re not vigilant.”

The surreptitious erosion Hackett mentions is everywhere in Man in the High Castle, not least in the characters; it’s difficult to categorize those on the show as decidedly bad or good. Even Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), the high-ranking American Nazi who is in most scenes icy and callous, surprises viewers with an unconditional love for his eldest son—Thomas, from the pledge in the opening scene—that leads him to disobey Reich policy and use any means, including violence, to save his boy.  

“It’s easy to point your finger at villains. These people are bad and these people are good. It’s all very reductive,” Hackett says. “Most people are making decisions in their lives to survive and get by, based on your surroundings and what you’re faced with.”

Rupert Evans, who plays Frank Frink—a San Francisco Jew whose sister, niece and nephew were killed last season by the Kempeitai in a gas chamber styled to look like a friendly waiting room—says, “We all hope we would be able to stand up and fight. Lots of people look back and say they would have.” But in reality, there was a “huge proportion of people that didn’t,” and the series explores the different ways that people react to oppressive rule. We’ve only seen the very beginning of resistance to a Trump presidency—in acts like massive protests in big cities, a surge in donations to organizations like the ACLU and cities vowing not to implement policies they consider abhorrent. But it remains to be seen how forceful and widespread the defiance will be if the worst fears of a Trumpean society come to fruition.  

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It’s important to concede that, at least so far, the parallels between the world of Man in the High Castle and 2016 America—which itself feels unbelievable much of the time—aren’t exact. But that’s not the point. Rosenfeld says alternate histories like this one are a “screen for people to project our fears about the status of the country, comparing it to the standard of evil,” which since World War II has almost invariably been Adolf Hitler and his Nazi machinery.

During the show’s first season, Rosenfeld says, interpreted against the backdrop of the Obama administration, viewers with opposing political views latched onto different details. Conservatives, for example, might have looked at the scene where a bookseller in the Neutral Zone talks about the Bible being banned as confirmation of a “fear that Obama is a ruthless secularist” and the notion that Starbucks, and the country, is waging war on Christmas. But now, “the stage is set for liberals to take far more out of the series,” Rosenfeld says. For conservatives, the “only way to find meaning” in the next installment of Man in the High Castle might be “identifying with the Nazis, trying to expel resisters,” he adds. “I don’t think most conservatives want to do that.” Though he hopes differing interpretations of the series will keep the topic in the public sphere—which would be “very helpful if one believes that normalizing a Trump presidency is to be resisted”—he predicts conservatives will tune out, while liberals will watch intently.

As citizens and immigrants across the country look around at an America they don’t quite recognize—one in which the president-elect has called for a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslims entering the country and proposed a mandatory registry, said he would build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants (whom he’s called “rapists” and “bad hombres”) and suggested that Americans who burn a flag should be jailed or stripped of their citizenship—Man in the High Castle’s alternate versions of American history might feel doubly alarming. It no longer seems impossible: The complete erosion of democratic ideals and the complacency of so many Americans under the rule of a demagogue, allowing themselves to reminisce only occasionally and in hushed tones about what things used to be like, “before the war.”

But nightmarish alternate histories can also serve as a kind of coping mechanism, a dramatization of how much worse things could be. And at a time when “so many of us feel so helpless in face of globalization, at the mercy of deep powerful forces, it’s comforting to think of the power of the individual to contend with [them],” Rosenfeld says. What’s more American than believing that individuals with some gumption and naive hope can change the course of history?

The series cinematographer, Gonzalo Amat, echoes the possibility of a hopeful reading. “No matter how dark this world is, there’s hope and resistance,” he says. “There’s always a way of trying to set history right.”

Advertisements for the show’s second season seem to acknowledge this interpretation. One billboard depicts the New York City skyline with the Statue of Liberty looming in the foreground. The statue’s green arm extends forward in a Nazi salute. One New Yorker tweeted, “This is now too close to the truth. We are living in the parallel universe where Hillary lost.” But the billboard and other posters marketing the show also present a hopeful tagline printed over the distressing visuals: “The future belongs to those who change it.”

It’s hard to judge yet whether Man in the High Castle will end on such a hopeful note, or if it is ultimately setting viewers up for a steep fall. But the lesson for those of us terrified of Trump’s America has to be in those words. Even if we don’t know if we can change the racism, the sexism, the xenophobia or prevent our government's descent into a shameless kleptocracy, we still must fight.

Read more from Newsweek.com:

A new trailer for ‘Man in the High Castle’ and Episode Two preview
Sneak peak at ‘Man in the High Castle’ Season Two
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