The Man in the High Castle… The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime; 10 episodes)

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime; 10 episodes)

As the opening credits flash across the screen, The Man in the High Castle seems to be real. This historical drama, based on the Philip K. Dick book of the same name and produced exclusively for Amazon Prime, presents a counterfactual scenario in which the Axis powers win the Second World War and occupy America. Germany has extended sovereignty over the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest, and Americans under its control have been incorporated into the Greater German Reich. The West Coast operates as a colony of the Japanese Empire, and Americans there are treated as second-class citizens. A “Neutral Zone” lies in between these two areas along the Continental Divide. The Zone is a lawless territory filled with the rejects of the two totalitarian regimes. The cinematography, set-dressing, and historical world-building, created by Frank Spotnitz, bring this twisted world to life, and in spite of the inherently hackneyed nature of this counterfactual, the show manages to give the watcher a vivid sense of reality throughout the entire pilot.

The Characters

Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank): A Manhattan truck driver who takes on a mission for the Resistance to make a delivery to Canon City in the Neutral Zone. His character is the source of more than a few of the series’ many plot twists.

Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos): A San Francisco martial arts expert living in peace with the Japanese occupation, until a sudden tragedy brought on by the Japanese secret police leads her to discover newsreel films that the Resistance wanted delivered to the titular “Man in the High Castle” in Canon City.

Frank Frink (Rupert Evans): Juliana’s boyfriend and a machine shop worker.  At the start of the series, he is trying to use his skills as an artist to lucrative ends, but is unwillingly drawn into a world of intrigue when the authorities come looking for Juliana.

Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa): He is the Trade Minister for the Pacific States. Deeply involved in meditation and the I Ching, his unorthodox methods of protecting the Empire and efforts to be a good man are interesting plot points in the series.

John Smith (Rufus Sewell): American SS Obergruppenführer

Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente): He is the ruthless head of the Kempeitai in San Francisco.

Rudolf Wegener (Carsten Norgaard): Under the pseudonym “Mr. Baynes,” Swedish industrialist, SS Colonel Wegener is on an important mission to get an audience with the Japanese Science Minister through Trade Minister Tagomi.

Synopsis

The year is 1962.  The German Reich and the Japanese Empire have occupied the former United States for a generation since “V-A Day” in 1947.  The German occupiers have purified the Greater German Reich of Jews, blacks, and other undesirables. The Japanese have been nominally more tolerant: their mass killings have only targeted those who resist them politically. The interests of the two Axis powers have begun to diverge, and the tensions between their governments pose as great a threat to the “peace” as the fabled American Resistance.

The show opens by developing the backgrounds of two people recruited by the Resistance.  The man, Joe Blake, is given a mission by a trucking company in New York to deliver “coffee makers” to Canon City in the Neutral Zone.  The woman, Juliana Crain, enters this underground when her sister Trudy is shot by the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police).  Juliana discovers newsreel films among Trudy’s belongings labeled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.”  They depict scenes from an alternate reality: Marines raising Old Glory over Iwo Jima; GIs storming the beaches at Normandy; Americans rejoicing over V-E and V-J Day in New York City.  Fascinated by these visions of beyond, Juliana decides to follow a lead she found in Trudy’s purse: a bus ticket to Canon City with the cryptic annotation “Sunrise Diner 12:5.”  Against the better judgment of her metalworker boyfriend Frank Frink, she departs on that bus the next day.  She hopes that Trudy’s contact can expound on the nature of the films, which are rumored to be the brainchild of the mysterious “Man in the High Castle.”

Juliana is not the only one interested.  Both the Nazi and Japanese regimes are determined to get their hands on the subversive films and their creator.  The Kempeitai arrest Frank to get Juliana’s location.  Chief Inspector Kido, who has discovered Frank’s Jewish ancestry, orders his sister, niece, and nephew gassed with Zyklon D, but Frank still refuses to talk.  The Japanese almost shoot him, but find a woman who absconded with Juliana’s bag (with all but one newsreel) from the bus.  Satisfied, Kido lets an incredulous Frank loose with the ironic, “You have suffered much, and I am not a cruel man.”

Meanwhile in Canon City, a penniless Juliana meets Joe Blake when he pays for her food at the Sunrise Diner.  They fast become friends, and he helps her find lodging at a nearby hotel.  She gets a waitressing job at the diner for the twofold purpose of paying him back and looking for Trudy’s contact.  One customer is an old man studying the Bible who tells her to look up Ecclesiastes 12:5 (“Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden…”)  She arranges a rendezvous with him to deliver the film and tells Joe about the meeting; when she leaves, he makes a phone call to New York City.  Joe is an undercover SS agent, reporting directly to Obergruppenführer John Smith; he learns that the old man is a dangerous SD (Sicherheitsdienst, the SS’s intelligence service) agent.  Joe drives to the meeting point, where he sees the old man attack her to get the film and Juliana use her aikido skills to throw him over a dam.  Joe drives her back to town, where they each wait for someone to contact them.

It does not take long.  A vicious bounty hunter known simply by the sobriquet “The Marshal” shows up in town.  Initially there to meet up with the SD man, he finds out about Juliana’s presence from the local bookseller, whom he recognizes as a fugitive from the Reich.  The Marshal lynches him personally and leaves his cadaver hanging from a highway sign.  Joe and Juliana discover a map in the SD man’s car, which leads to an abandoned mine with the grisly remains of a woman presumably tortured to death, along with a list of names, all crossed off save two: Trudy’s name and that of “Lemuel Washington,” the owner of the Sunrise Diner.  Quickly realizing that he is the Resistance contact, Juliana returns to town, where she is pursued by the Marshal.  Only through an elaborate ruse faking her death in a car crash are they able to throw him off and warn Lemuel of the threat.  He agrees to bring them to the person collecting the films: the Man in the High Castle.  At the meeting point, however, Lemuel and other Resistance members (the Man in the High Castle not among their number) hold Joe up at gunpoint: they suspect him to be a Nazi.  He is able to placate them by giving them a “Grasshopper Lies Heavy” film he found concealed in the truck.  While Juliana wants to stay and find more answers, she returns to San Francisco after calling home and learning from one of Frank’s friends that he is about to go “do something stupid.”

Frank, distraught over the death of his sister and her children, plots to shoot the visiting Japanese Crown Prince during his address.  Frank takes a handmade Colt .45 he machined at his work, and goes to the speech, but finds himself unable to pull the trigger.  Someone else evidently had a similar idea, however, and had no such loss of nerve—the Crown Prince is shot and the venue is thrown into turmoil.  A dazed Frank hurries back home, hiding the revolver along the way.

Another man whose plans went awry at the Crown Prince’s speech was SS Colonel Rudolf Wegener.  Under the pseudonym of “Baynes,” a Swedish industrialist, Wegener went to visit Pacific States Trade Minister Nabusuke Tagomi for an important mission: deliver plans on microfilm to the Japanese Science Minister, who accompanied the Prince on his tour.  Amidst the turmoil, Wegener is unsuccessful in meeting the Science Minister and is forced to hide the microfilm before Tagomi can extract him through a diplomatic visa.  In a turn of luck, however, Wegener runs into the Science Minister on the way to the airport and slips him the film before slipping away to a flight to New York.

Wegener is met there by Obergruppenführer John Smith, an old friend and colleague.  He invites Wegener back to his Long Island home for a V-A Day dinner.  Also in attendance is Joe Blake, who is back from the Canon City expedition.  While initially Smith and Wegener get along, reminiscing about experiences when they were stationed together at Cincinnati, Smith becomes increasingly suspicious as Wegener refuses to divulge what he was doing in the Pacific States and, damningly, expresses contrition over the deaths he helped cause in the Nazi conquest.  Smith has him arrested by the end of the evening.

He also suspects Joe of knowing more than he lets on, and is proven correct when he tries to break into one of Smith’s cabinets to look at a folder labeled “Grasshopper.”  Joe confesses to Juliana’s involvement in Resistance activities in Canon City, and, more importantly, that she is still alive.  Smith orders him to find her and seek out a new film that is rumored to have surfaced in San Francisco.

Juliana has, in the meantime, continued her quest for answers.  She contacts the Resistance at home and at their behest gets a job working in the Nippon Building as an aide to Trade Minister Tagomi.  Juliana finds herself at the business end of several startling revelations on the job: she finds about the wiretapping that the Kempeitai are doing to keep tabs on the Resistance; she sees that her stepfather (whom she had always known to be a mailman) seems to be running the operation; Tagomi gives her the address of the mass grave in which the Kempeitai have dumped her sister Trudy’s corpse.  While both Tagomi and the Resistance are pleased with Juliana’s performance in her new job, events conspire to take her out of it permanently.

The Kempeitai have not forgotten Frank.  While the ballistics report prove inconclusive, several eyewitnesses reported a bespectacled dark-haired man with a revolver—a man fitting his description—at the speech.  Uneasy at the police attention near his home and workplace, Frank crafts a plan to escape the Pacific States with Juliana.  He conspires with a salesman of Americana to make a forgery of one of Sitting Bull’s necklaces and sell it for a vast sum.  The plot is successful, and Frank plans to move with Juliana to the Neutral States with the payment he received.

At the same time, the Resistance have heard the rumor of a new “Grasshopper Lies Heavy” newsreel on the grapevine, and have attempted to buy it.  Unfortunately, the Yakuza have killed their contact and are holding the film ransom.  The Resistance asks Juliana to get Joe’s help.  He gets the money through the Nazi embassy and surreptitiously receives the film at a Yakuza-run pleasure dome.  At the last minute, however, Juliana hears of the Kempeitai’s plan to raid the place and goes to warn her colleagues—just in time to get captured by the Yakuza with Joe.  The Resistance pay a large ransom to get her out but refuses to expend more for Joe—she convinces Frank to pay his out of the money he had earned for his job.  Joe manages to steal back the film upon his release and hand it to Frank.  Juliana and Frank watch the film while Joe goes to ground to evade the Kempeitai.  The newsreel is, unlike the scenes of American victory, a grim picture of a nuclear bomb vaporizing the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, with SS officers moving in to murder civilians; to their horror, they realize one of them is Joe, shooting Frank in the head.  Joe pilfers the film from a shellshocked Juliana when he comes back and retreats to the Nazi Embassy.

In a climactic finale, several plot points fall into—and out of—place.  Colonel Wegener is put into the hands of Oberstgruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, who plans to launch a coup d’etat against the aging Adolf Hitler and use the Reich’s resources in a war against Japan to conquer the Pacific States.  Heydrich convinces Wegener to assassinate Hitler on the threat of harming his family.  Heydrich in the meantime invites Obergruppenführer Smith on a hunting trip in the Catskills and tries to persuade him to join the coup at gunpoint, awaiting a phone call from Berlin from a hopefully successful Wegener.  He, however, was stopped by the force of Hitler’s rhetoric; faced with the specter of his past crimes in Hitler’s name and the bleak vision of a Heydrich-led war against Japan, Wegener shoots himself.  Smith’s aide, who has been following in the woods, shoots Heydrich’s adjutant, allowing Smith himself to shoot Heydrich and answer the call, “Mein Führer, I have apprehended a traitor.”

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Juliana and Frank are trying to escape the Pacific States; their previous plan of riding a bus out is undone by the fact that the authorities are now requiring photo IDs to purchase tickets.  The Resistance agree to help transport them to Mexico on the condition that Juliana help them kill Joe, whom they have positively identified as a Nazi agent.  She succeeds in luring him out to a pier where the Resistance has planned to ambush him, but lets him go after he tearfully admits that meeting her in Canon City has changed his life.  He is seen riding off on a boat to Mexico.

Chief Inspector Kido has by this time discovered the real culprit behind the Crown Prince shooting—but keeps it quiet.  The assassin is an SS officer who has a sniper rifle concealed in his room, whom Kido shoots.  He and his aide dispose of the body and official papers; Kido explains that the revelation that a Nazi government official had shot the Crown Prince would start a war, “A war that our Empire currently cannot win.”  The Kempeitai captures one of Frank’s coworkers, Ed McCarthy, who confesses to owning the pistol they are looking for; Frank refuses to let Ed take the fall and turns himself in at the police station.

Evaluation

It seems clear that The Man in the High Castle is intended to give a strong emotional response and it does, albeit in rather unexpected ways. (When advertisers decorated the seats of a New York City subway car with the flag of the Greater German Reich (which contains a swastika), many were outraged, and the public outcry was so strong that the advertisement had to be pulled.) While the mise en scene is effective in depicting the new dystopia—the emotional rendition of Edelweiss over the opening credits; the “Work Makes You Free” neon sign in New York’s Times Square; the gassing and cremation of physical and mental “undesirables” in the Greater German Reich; the mass graves of the Japanese secret police, just for example— it is the small things that drive home the pathos of a repressive regime over a land that used to be free.

These are the things that make one wonder exactly how the United States would have fared after losing the Second World War to Germany and Japan (but presumably not Italy.  No one deserves that embarrassment.)  The society seems so inexplicably normal at times.   Far from the war-torn landscapes of ruined Berlin or Tokyo in our timeline, Man in the High Castle’s America bears few scars of military conquest.  It is implied that the United States government surrendered to the Axis Powers after the Nazis dropped “The Bomb” on Washington, D.C. in 1945.  America seems to have acclimated since then, adopting institutions such as Germany’s racial laws, the Hitler Youth, and Tiergartenstrasse-4-esque forced euthanasia; in the Pacific States, the people are a little more disquiet: Americans old enough to remember the war quietly grumble about their Japanese overlords, while some wish that the Japanese would leave or that the Reich would take over.  The only people willing to do anything about the occupation are the Resistance.  They are, however, in many ways the antithesis of the principles of freedom they purport to stand for: Juliana is repeatedly told by their operatives to never watch the films and to never ask questions.  (The Resistance also happen to be horrendous shots, as evidenced in the scene in which East Coast Resistance members attempt to gun down Obergruppenführer Smith and his aide in their car with submachine guns at close range.  Neither man is killed.)

The apparent ease at which the Axis powers took over seems therefore to rely on the American people themselves.  As Abraham Lincoln once pontificated, “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”  A pointed question the series seems to ask is: how much did the American people in the Man in the High Castle universe value their freedom and liberty?  We learn in one of the episodes that Franklin Roosevelt had been assassinated in the 1930s, leading to a presumably anemic response to German and Japanese aggression.  With prominent liberal Brain Trust thinkers during the Great Depression seeing totalitarian governments along the lines of Hitlerite Germany or Woodrow Wilson’s war regime as the key to the future, perhaps the fall to an authoritarian juggernaut seemed inevitable, leading to a quick Vichy France-esque surrender, despite the inherent difficulties of invading a large nation across the sea.  (The Germans as far back as World War I were worried about American involvement.  As historian John Mosier puts it, “Some Germans professed to sneer at the idea of an American Army having any effect on the field of battle.  After all, in 1917, the entire army hardly came to 150,000 men, less than Belgium’s.  But to a generation of young German officers who had grown up reading tales of the Wild West, and who had studied the Civil War (which German staff officers all had done), the idea of having to fight a country where the average farmhouse probably had as many guns as the average German infantry platoon was far from reassuring.”)  Thus, the American giant fell asleep and remained un-aroused, despite the best pinpricks of the Resistance.  Another difficult question is then: how do you resist a fascist government?  The Resistance seems to prioritize killing Nazis and delivering the films—all small scale stuff—not concrete measures to overthrow the existing government, possibly a difficult pill for the viewer to swallow.

It is clear that The Man in the High Castle is trying to challenge the viewer to question his beliefs. It is much more difficult to determine exactly what beliefs the series is challenging. From the first episode onward, it is obvious that the writers are admirers of Hannah Arendt. The attention that they pay to developing the characters of even the most brutal German and Japanese officials perfectly showcases the banality of evil. The plot even tricks viewers into supporting Hitler over those who would plunge the world into another great war. That’s more than a little messed up.

Contrary to what American viewers have come to expect from films such as Red Dawn, the resistance is not a major plot element, and all-out revolution is not portrayed as a likely or even possible eventuality. The real plot seems to lie not in the conflict between the Resistance and the Axis powers, but in the characters’ conflicting perceptions of reality. All the main characters are well-fleshed out, but most interesting are the high-ranking members of the Axis Powers, especially the Japanese Trade Minister. While these characters initially appear to fit certain villain stereotypes, they develop into highly complex personalities. The Trade Minister appears to be a staid, predictable man, but the series reveals that his actions are based upon his belief in an ancient divination ritual using the I Ching which is essentially random. This inherent contradiction is one of many that define his character.

The Trade Minister is not the only mysterious character in The Man in the High Castle. The Man in the High Castle himself remains unidentified throughout the first season, and his identity proves to be a fixture of the plot.  Different characters espouse different ideas of him: some say he makes the films; some say he is dead; the Resistance members try to deliver films to him (which seems to preclude the idea that he is their originator).  The viewer begins to question not only who he is or how he makes the films, but whether or not he actually exists.  (In fact, one could argue that Hitler is the titular character—he lives in the eponymous location and is obsessed with collecting the films.) This leads to questioning the “fake” nature of the films themselves. These tricks are only themes: even taken together, they do not constitute any real message. By the end of the series, the viewer realizes that it is not beliefs that The Man in the High Castle challenges, but belief itself.

The triumph of The Man in the High Castle, is, if you will, the totality of its message. It delivers a strong performance in multiple areas of evaluation: the cinematography, setting, and character-building are easily some of the best in recent years. Both writers are in agreement: The Man in the High Castle is the best thing to happen to the world since the Soviet Union won the Cold War.