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The Man In the High Castle: Fake News in Nazi America

Fake News in Nazi AmericaIn our reality, Fritz Julius Kuhn died in 1951 in Munich, Germany, “a poor and obscure chemist, unheralded and unsung.” The former leader of an American organization that promoted Nazism within the United States, Kuhn was found guilty in 1939 of embezzling funds to spend on his mistress, and deported to Germany in 1945. But in the reality of the Amazon series The Man In the High Castle, Kuhn is an American hero. In the first scene of the second season, released in its entirety on Friday, school buses pull into Fritz Julius Kuhn High School, as girls and boys in Nazi sashes pile into classrooms. They pledge allegiance until death to the leader of the Nazi Empire, Adolf Hitler. They raise their right arms in unison and chant, “Sieg heil. Sieg heil. Sieg heil.”It’s a scene that might have played a little differently a few months ago, before a man who tweeted anti-Semitic imagery was elected to the highest office in the land, or before video revealed a roomful of white supremacists assembled in Washington hailing President Trump with the very same language and salute. Suddenly, The Man In the High Castle has unexpected resonance. Only a few weeks after the election, Amazon was forced to remove promotional material that festooned subway cars with Nazi-American imagery, after Mayor Bill de Blasio described it as “irresponsible and offensive.”

But if the show seems newly painful, it’s also newly relevant. The first season, which debuted in 2015, was based loosely on the 1962 speculative novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, in which the Axis countries won World War II and portioned up America. Nazi Germany controls the East Coast and Japan the Pacific states, with a kind of neutral mountain zone in the middle. In the book, a banned novel featuring an alternate history in which the Allies won the war becomes popular. In the TV show, the subversive novel is reimagined as newsreels depicting strange parallel realities, which the heroes of the show can use to influence the one they live in. But the metaphor is the same: Storytelling can change the world. Whether in print or onscreen, fictional societies are thought experiments that allow us to hold our own up to greater scrutiny—to probe its weaknesses and imagine the worst. In contemporary America, watching this dystopian fantasy of Nazi rule is as often illuminating as it’s uncomfortable.

That The Man In the High Castle is a valuable show doesn’t mean it’s a perfect one, although the second season is stronger than the first, which invested much more heavily in visuals and style than it did in story or characters. In the pilot episode, set in 1961, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a Nazi, infiltrated a resistance movement in New York, escaping from a shootout with a mysterious film reel. Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos), a young woman living in Japanese-controlled San Francisco, watched as her sister was shot dead in the street minutes after she gave Juliana a similar reel. Then, Juliana’s boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans) was tortured by the Japanese, and his sister and her children were murdered in retaliation for Juliana’s escape to the free zone.

The rest of the first season had both Juliana and Joe caught between the resistance, the Nazis, and the Japanese Kempeitai, while the Nazi and Japanese governments engaged in covert hostilities prompted by a power struggle in Berlin. But as much as the show focused on its heroes and their journeys, it delved into the motivations of the villains: John Smith (Rufus Sewell), a cruel SS officer; Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Japanese trade minister; andChief Inspector Takeshi Kido (Joel de la Fuente), the head of the Kempeitai. While Kido’s loyalty to Japan remained steadfast throughout (he was willing to sacrifice his own life to prevent war with Germany), Tagomi’s was more ambiguous, and at the end of the series, while meditating, he appeared to transport himself into a parallel reality where the U.S. had won the war and the Cuban Missile Crisis was ongoing.The one figure uniting all the characters was the Man in the High Castle, a shadowy figure who was somehow responsible for the fake newsreels in circulation. The first film Juliana watched showed the Allies winning World War II; the second, at the end of the season, showed San Francisco being leveled by an atom bomb and Frank being shot in the head by Joe, wearing a Nazi uniform. The question for the second season, then, is what could such different newsreels mean? How is it possible to see these oppositional versions of reality, and how, if at all, can they be used in the present?

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