Television

Hunters Is an Anti-Nazi Series That Finds Actual Nazis Insufficiently Shocking

Since when do these facts require exaggeration?

A Holocaust survivor sits in front of a chessboard
A scene from the controversial first episode of Amazon’s Hunters.
Photo by Fred Elmes © MonkeyPaw Productions

Hunters, the new Amazon series about a covert group of anti-Nazi vigilantes, starts off with a bang, or at least the thwack of a silenced pistol. It’s a beautiful summer day in Maryland, 1977, and Jimmy Carter’s Undersecretary of State is having a cookout. As Bob Seger plays on the soundtrack, the camera takes in his neatly trimmed backyard, the water gleaming blue in his swimming pool as his three children splash about, the smiling face of his blonde wife, and the undersecretary himself, tending his grill in a “Kiss the Cook” apron. It couldn’t be more perfectly, almost comically American, at least until a new colleague arrives and his wife, a concentration camp survivor, identifies the man who’s been known for the last 30 years as Biff Simpson as the Butcher of Arlav, a Nazi war criminal who massacred her entire family. With a disappointed frown, Biff pulls a gun out from under his prep table and slaughters them all: his wife, their kids, his friends, leaving the Jewish survivor for last. “You thought the war was over,” he taunts her before putting a bullet in her head. “We’re here now. Everywhere.”

Hunters’ late-1970s setting allows it to occupy the period when Nazi hunting was still an active profession. 1977 was the year an executioner from the Treblinka camp was identified after living in Waterbury, Connecticut for two decades. But despite its ostensible grounding in history and the periodic inclusion of faux-newsreel segments with titles like “Yup, That Shit Really Happened,” the series’ relationship to the past is casual at best, and arguably far worse. Over the weekend, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum came out against the show, proclaiming a scene in the first episode “dangerous foolishness” that “welcomes future deniers.”

Hunters’ creator, David Weil, defended the scene in question, a macabre game of “human chess” between a Nazi concentration camp guard and a Jewish grandmaster, as a necessary invention, designed for “showcasing the most extreme—and representationally truthful—sadism and violence that the Nazis perpetrated against Jews and other victims.” But with the phrase Weil shoehorns in between those dashes, he gives himself a lot of leeway. The second episode features a singing competition called “The Star of Buchanwald,” in which concentration-camp prisoners are shot dead for going out of tune or forgetting the words to a German song, until one remains. Amazon’s in-episode commentary for the scene calls it “a fiction that illuminates a larger truth,” and that’s the rationale for Hunters as a whole. The story, in which Al Pacino’s Meyer Offerman convenes an elite squad of off-the-books Nazi killers, is deliberately over the top, complete with grindhouse-style introductions for each member of the team. (The explosives experts played by Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane are dubbed “A couple of Chabad-asses.”) And it gets more outlandish as it goes, positing not just a string of fugitive war criminals trying to stay off the radar but a vast conspiracy at every level of society. Who killed Bobby Kennedy? What caused the New York City blackout? Yup, that shit really happened.

Weil is clearly taking his cues from, and at times slavishly imitating, Quentin Tarantino, who capped Inglourious Basterds with the invented but cathartic killing of Adolf Hitler. (I haven’t seen a Tarantino ripoff this labored since The Boondock Saints.) Meyer’s group is filled out with a collection of second- and third-hand caricatures, not types taken from movies but types taken from movies about movies. There’s Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), a black activist with a splendiferous Afro; Joe Mizushima (Louis Ozawa), a battle-scarred Vietnam veteran; and Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany), a British nun who wears a wimple and curses like a sailor. They’re not all Jewish, but the ones who are stress it so emphatically it verges on a kind of ethnic minstrelsy. When Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), an out-of-work actor born Leonard Flazenstein, has to use the bathroom, he says he’s going to go “drop some chocolate dreidels into the Dead Sea.” But while the dialogue is peppered with Yiddishisms, the show has substantially less interest in engaging with Jewish moral tradition or faith. When Meyer attempts to quote the Talmud, reciting the proverb that “living well is the best revenge,” it’s not just that he misattributes the saying. He’s only bringing it up to gainsay it: The best revenge, he argues, is revenge.

The final episode of Hunters’ first season offers an explanation for Meyer’s uncomplicated bloodlust. (Stop reading if you don’t want the show’s extremely dumb twist revealed.) Meyer Offerman, who has built his organization around the hunt for a notorious Nazi known as the Wolf … is actually the Wolf. He killed Meyer on the day his camp was liberated and has lived under his name ever since. Thirty years of living as a Jew has changed the Wolf’s heart to the extent that he has no compunction about hunting down his former comrades. But it hasn’t changed his ruthlessness. Meyer believed that even the worst of men deserved to have the kaddish said as they died. The Wolf just wants to see them dead. But the show seems to embrace his philosophy as well. Meyer’s protégé and Hunters’ protagonist, Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), takes his side in the end, even after becoming aware of his betrayal. Heroes, we’re told, aren’t people who do what is right. They’re people who do what is necessary. (End spoilers.)

That’s the approach Hunters takes as well. Underlying the cartoonish tone and historical fabrications is a desperate attempt to get the audience’s attention. Although it’s set in the past and frequently flashes back to the death camps, the show’s concern is clearly with the present: like today’s meme-driven white supremacists, the show’s Nazis drink milk, and one starts up a chant popularized by the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. The eighth episode stops dead for a Family Feud­­­­-style game show called Why Does Everyone Hate the Jews? whose contestants rack up points by spouting anti-Semitic stereotypes. At the end of the bit, the host’s demeanor turns serious as he turns straight to the camera and asks, “Do you know someone who would win big money here? … Would you?”

Breaking the fourth wall is meant to be a moment of confrontation, but by that point, the show has made it all but impossible for anyone to see themselves in its overwrought depictions. Weil’s dedication to showing the “most extreme” examples of Nazi sadism, even if he has to invent them, is undoubtedly meant to shock a desensitized audience’s senses, but instead it just dulls their senses even more, and risks making real atrocities look tame by comparison. At one point, Meyer tells Jonah that they’re hunting “a Nazi doctor so sadistic he could make even Mengele squirm.” Is Mengele not bad enough?

The most effective moments in Hunters are when the show invents a justified comeuppance for the ones who got away: not the infamous figures who spent decades in hiding, but the ones who mustered a deniability just plausible enough to make themselves acceptable again. In one episode, the hunters pay a visit to a filmmaker modeled on Leni Riefenstahl and force her to literally eat shit, and in another, they pay a visit to Wernher von Braun, who went from building Nazi weapons of war to being a key architect of the U.S. space program. There’s no shock of recognition when you’re watching a menacing psychopath who sings showtunes as he tries to further the rise of a Fourth Reich. But the morally flexible government agents who helped relocate hundreds of Hitler’s scientists so we could beat the Russians to the moon? That’s much harder to dismiss.

In Hunters, fugitive Nazis keep photos of themselves with Hitler in their living rooms and tins filled with Jewish children’s teeth in a half-open desk drawer. They’re easy to identify, and easy to snuff out. But the real Biff Simpsons don’t get swastika tattoos, and when they do get caught, they simply change the narrative. As a revenge fantasy, the show has a certain kick, but as a cautionary tale, it’s woefully misguided. In his response to the Auschwitz Museum, Weil invoked the memory of his grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, and his “responsibility as the grandson of Holocaust survivors to keep their memory alive.” But it isn’t memory that Hunters keeps alive. It’s a mirage.