Monday 23 January 2017

On TV - Max Berghouse reviews Series 1 & 2 of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

The Man in the High Castle
Series 1 (10 episodes) – 2015; Series 2 (10 episodes) – 2016.
Amazon Studios and Others Production;various Executive Producers including Sir Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz; various directors including Daniel Percival (four episodes) and Karyn Kusama (two episodes) (all other directors one episode each); various script writers including Frank Spotnitz and Philip K Dick (based upon his novel). Starring Alexa Davalos ("Juliana Crane"), Rupert Evans ("Frank Frink"), Luke Kleitank ("Joe Blake"), Rufus Sewell ("John Smith") and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa ("TradeMinisterTagomi").

Book Cover of the Philip K Dick novel
Towards the end of the second series, the program' s creator, Spotnitz left and was replaced. It is thought that this will lead to a truncation of characters in series 3

Apparently the highest rated programme from Amazon Studios, which has resulted in the recent confirmation of at least a further, third, series, my wife and I binge watched this over two days while we were in New York over the Christmas and New Year period. Whatever else it was, it was a great relief from having to venture out into the cold. 

Essentially the plotline concerns an "alternative history" in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were the victors in World War II and (apart from making no direct comment about gobbling up the British Empire – it is referred to on a couple of maps), as victors, divide continental United States into two zones: a relatively small Western zone, renamed as the "Japanese Pacific States" and a much larger eastern and central zone, the "Greater Nazi Reich" with a small buffer "neutral zone" between them.
I'm not quite sure of the merits of binge watching. For something truly good and anticipated, the anticipation of next week's episode, can heighten appreciation. Binge watching can at its worst result in an overload of information, both factual and aesthetic, which results in a lessened experience. On the other hand, modern TV serial/series have a great deal of information in them and one is less inclined to miss information by binge watching.

And it is indeed a very busy, if not necessarily complicated plot. Germany and Japan are in an uneasy alliance in 1962, the Second World War having been won in 1947 by a knockout atomic attack on Washington using a "Heisenberg instrument". Some members of the senior leadership in Berlin (a city which through the use of more than adequate CGI, very much resembles Hitler's aspirations for his Imperial capital "Germania") want to use their apparent military superiority to take out the Japanese. Equally militant Japanese would willingly do the same to the Germans, if they could gain access to the atomic weapon. Within each competing state are forces seeking to maintain parity. In the background of what remain as essentially occupied countries, there is committed but relatively futile resistance which can be both co-operative between each occupied state and competitive. Lastly there are competing "professional" and personal relationships between all the main characters.
With the certain exception of the Christian New Testament and the possible exception of the American Civil War, no subject has been more thoroughly written about than the rise and fall of Nazism.. Even though set in a counterfactual historical background, issues of "reality" remain important. I did not think this was especially well handled, but I acknowledge that different perspectives may have equal validity. Neither Japanese nor Nazi America is anywhere near as well-developed economically as 1962 America actually was. That's to be expected because both parts of the country remain under occupation and this would have had a considerable economic cost. Apart from a few well researched CGI effects, concerning Berlin, referred to above, which have been referred to by critics as only just acceptable, the story is mainly conducted indoors in rundown flats et cetera and dark alleyways. Reminiscent to me of a film I saw in my earliest youth, Tora Tora Tora (USA/Japan, 1970), scenes involving a Japanese part of the Empire and the Japanese themselves have a very static quality, like a Kabuki play. I'm sure this must deliberate but whatever aesthetic benefit there is, certainly slows down the relatively ponderous action of the entire series.
For better or worse the linchpin of the series is Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, formerly an American serviceman who has made his accommodation with the victorious Germans. Played by Rufus Sewell, best known as a stage actor, he brings a gravitas to his role, particularly his emerging disquiet about the regime as it impacts upon his family, that is largely denied others. He gets better lines and he makes good use of this. The Japanese are all effectively played as vicious dummies. In fact they are referred to in their entirety by Caucasians as "pawns". They have all the depth of character as Japanese in a World War II US propaganda film. Those who are necessary for plot development and have accordingly to be more complex are all shown (I think) wearing hats. That seems to be the current universal means of indicating someone small-minded and bureaucratic.
The youthful leads, male and female are of course stunningly attractive. "Joe Blake" (what a name!) is appropriately Aryan. "Frank Frink", a major part of whose role in the plot is to come to terms with his Jewish ancestry (originally he was "Frank Fink") but is made to look presumably suitably Semitic and intellectual by his glasses, which he clearly doesn't need. The dialogue of each of them, both as to political matters and to personal relationships is banal to a degree.
In what I consider to be something rather tasteless, the racial enemies of the Reich are referred to as "Semites", rather than "Jews". It's a bit like those mealymouthed prewar American films which liked to attack fascism so long as it didn't affect their box office.
The female lead, Alex Davalos, quite beautiful is I think a little too "classy" to play the role she has.
The series probably has much greater resonance for American viewers, brought up to the view that their country is inviolable. For me it ultimately became very much like a Foxtel history program: an endless parade of World War II German military uniforms and it has to be conceded that the SS uniforms, apparently originally designed by Hugo Boss, are stunning and worn to the very best effect by the actors playing SS officers. It is certainly worth a view but it is not something I would ever come back to. Like most TV series, there is a series of fairly spectacular scenes (like the CGI Berlin) coupled with what are clearly and mainly studio shots. As to the CGI, I am inclined to be generous. I don't think one should look for perfection in CGI creation, rather for quite clear artistry. This is more impressive in my view than, say, fairly endless street shots of early Japanese cars (supplied I think from a Toyota Museum) which are clearly the same two or three cars repeated again and again.
I have some lingering disquiet about a couple of matters which probably stemmed from the exigencies of editing. The first concerns the Japanese "Trade Minister" who seems to enjoy a much higher position in a military dictatorship than I would have thought. In a number of scenes he is shown in what I deduce to be an alternate world, in which, in 1962, America successfully threatens the Soviet Union over Cuba and in which he is reconciled to his family. It really requires deduction as to what is going on.
The second and in my view most egregious is the Man in the High Castle himself. Having been warned by my editor not to involve myself in excessive spoiler alerts, all I can say is that his largely "magical" role seems entirely unconvincing as does his characterisation generally. He is played by the superb actor Stephen Root whom I know almost exclusively from television. The characterisation both physically and emotionally I found completely unsuited to the role and his natural southern accent is really stretched to a degree – "way down yonder!"

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