Brow Beat

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Is Not a Fan of Amazon’s Hunters

Al Pacino in a closeup from Hunters.
Amazon

Hunters spoilers follow.

This weekend, Amazon released the first season of Hunters, the network’s new flagship show from producer Jordan Peele, in which Al Pacino leads an exploitation-movie-tinged band of Nazi hunters through the United States of the 1970s. On Sunday, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum harshly criticized the show for trafficking in “dangerous foolishness and caricature,” in a tweet that said Hunters “welcomes future deniers.” At issue was a flashback in the first episode in which a guard at Auschwitz forces prisoners to participate in a “human chess game,” something that didn’t actually happen. Here’s what the museum had to say:

The museum’s Twitter account is dedicated to sharing the stories of those who died at Auschwitz and detailed accounts of the atrocities the Nazis committed there, so it’s not surprising that they didn’t take the liberties Hunters took with the camp’s history lightly. (They’re also not big fans of Amazon in general at the moment, and for good reason: The company has been unable to keep new editions of Nazi propaganda from the likes of Julius Streicher off its website.) Asked by other Twitter users to elaborate on their complaint with Hunters (and fiction about the Holocaust in general), the museum tweeted, “one should not create a fake reality if the details about this reality are so well documented,” and suggested that the show should have invented a fictional camp for its fictional horrors:

Series creator David Weil responded in a statement to Deadline, sharing his own personal relationship to Auschwitz—his grandmother survived it—and wrote that he had tried to honor his responsibility to history by explicitly not recreating real events, since he “did not want to misrepresent a real person or borrow from a specific moment in an actual person’s life.” To avoid that hazard, Weil took steps like giving his characters tattoos with numbers higher than any the Nazis ever actually assigned and using fictionalized atrocities. As for the chess scene, Weil explained why he wanted it in his show in the first place:

In speaking to the “chess match” scene specifically… this is a fictionalized event. Why did I feel this scene was important to script and place in series? To most powerfully counteract the revisionist narrative that whitewashes Nazi perpetration, by showcasing the most extreme—and representationally truthful—sadism and violence that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews and other victims. And why did I feel the need to create a fictional event when there were so many real horrors that existed? After all, it is true that Nazis perpetrated widespread and extreme acts of sadism and torture—and even incidents of cruel “games”—against their victims. I simply did not want to depict those specific, real acts of trauma.

That is a good argument for including “representationally truthful” sadism and violence in a fictionalized depiction of the Holocaust, but it’s not at all apparent that the show’s project is counteracting revisionist narratives that whitewash Nazis. The first episode has an FBI agent investigating the death of a NASA chemist who has literally been gassed in a shower, and the Nazi connection is a secret she has to discover—by finding a photograph of the victim shaking hands with Adolf Hitler!—as though NASA’s Nazis weren’t common knowledge. They were giving Wernher von Braun guest spots on Disneyland! It’s also not obvious that the human chess scene is designed to counteract any narratives at all; it’s more of a thematic curtain-raiser. Chess is a recurring image in the first episode: The show’s credit sequence is built around a chessboard, and Al Pacino tells the human chess story to a would-be Nazi hunter played by Logan Lerman over a game of, well, you can probably guess. Here’s how he tells it:

You know, there was a very famous prisoner in Auschwitz named Markus Roth. He was the Bobby Fischer of Germany. And as fate would have it, one of the Nazi guards, a sadistic man named Heinz Richter, he had always aspired to be a great chess player too. But for years in tournaments, he was trounced by the chess-playing Jew. Who was now his prisoner. Now one morning, in the camps, Richter rounded up Markus and 32 others, marched them into the woods. Each day, more prisoners were led into those same woods. One morning, your safta’s younger sister was taken. Your safta, foolish and fearless, was determined to rescue her dear Chava so we snuck into the dark woods after them.

And in a small clearing, Richter had constructed a human chess board. On those squares stood the prisoners, each one with a blade. Richter commanded the black. He forced Marcus to play with the white. Chava didn’t fare well. After seven days of this torture, Markus Roth grabbed a blade and tried to kill the barbarous Heinz Richter. Markus, of course, was shot dead, but not before he gave Richter a scar across his throat in the shape of an X. Markus never lost one match, however. Not one. Perhaps we can take some solace from that.

There’s plenty of sadism and violence there, but at its core, this seems like a revenge story: Richter resents Roth’s skill at chess, so when the Holocaust gives him the opportunity, he constructs an ornate, Cask of Amontillado–grade scheme to torture him for it. That’s certainly thematically appropriate for a show about revenge—“Living well is not the best revenge. You know what the best revenge is? Revenge,” Pacino remarks at one point—but it might not be the best fictional stand-in for the things that people did to other people at Auschwitz. Here’s a real example from the museum, one that happened 77 years ago on Sunday:

The man who gave those injections, Herbert Scherpe, wasn’t settling an old score; he was just murdering children he’d never met before, whose names we don’t even know, as efficiently as possible. The biggest challenge in telling a story about the Holocaust is telling a story, extracting some kind of comprehensible narrative from industrialized slaughter. But flamboyant sadists make better villains than bureaucrats, so: human chess. The danger that comes from setting the bar for Nazism that high, though, if the goal is to counteract narratives that whitewash what the Nazis did, is that we don’t see the bureaucrats coming.

Here’s Weil’s full statement:

Years ago I visited Auschwitz and I saw the gates my grandmother was forced to enter decades earlier and the barracks she was forced to live in as a prisoner. I saw vestiges of the nightmarish world she had survived. It was an experience that forever altered the course of my life. It was the moment consecrated in time and memory that I sought to make good on doing my part—however big or however small—to ensure the promise of “Never Again.” I believed then—as I do now—that I had a responsibility as the grandson of Holocaust survivors to keep their stories alive.

While Hunters is a dramatic narrative series, with largely fictional characters, it is inspired by true events. But it is not documentary. And it was never purported to be. In creating this series it was most important for me to consider what I believe to be the ultimate question and challenge of telling a story about the Holocaust: how do I do so without borrowing from a real person’s specific life or experience?

It was for this reason that I made the decision that all of the concentration camp prisoners (and survivors) in the series would be given tattoos above the number 202,499. 202,499 is the highest recorded number given to a prisoner at Auschwitz. I didn’t want one of our characters to have the number of a real victim or a real survivor, as I did not want to misrepresent a real person or borrow from a specific moment in an actual person’s life. That was the responsibility that weighed on me every night and every morning for years, while writing, producing, editing this show. It is the thing I go to sleep thinking about and the thing I wake up working to honor.

In speaking to the “chess match” scene specifically… this is a fictionalized event. Why did I feel this scene was important to script and place in series? To most powerfully counteract the revisionist narrative that whitewashes Nazi perpetration, by showcasing the most extreme – and representationally truthful—sadism and violence that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews and other victims. And why did I feel the need to create a fictional event when there were so many real horrors that existed? After all, it is true that Nazis perpetrated widespread and extreme acts of sadism and torture—and even incidents of cruel “games”—against their victims. I simply did not want to depict those specific, real acts of trauma.

If the larger philosophical question is can we ever tell stories about the Holocaust that are not documentary, I believe we can and should. Hunters, like a myriad of acclaimed films on the subject, does not always adhere to literal truth in its pursuit of capturing the representational truth of the Holocaust. My decision to fictionalize was made in awareness of this debate, and this show takes the point of view that symbolic representations provide individuals access to an emotional and symbolic reality that allows us to better understand the experiences of the Shoah and provide it with meaning that can address our urgent present.

I am forever grateful to the Auschwitz Memorial for all of the important and vital work that they do, for keeping the memory of victims and survivors like my grandmother, Sara Weil, alive. I believe we are very much on the same side and working toward the same goals. And I hope we can continue a dialogue on how to achieve those goals.