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Auschwitz Museum objects to ‘Hunters’ over invented Nazi atrocities

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has accused Amazon’s Nazi revenge series “Hunters” of recklessly inventing a Holocaust atrocity.

The museum’s objection came in response to a central sequence involving a grisly game of chess. In the first episode, two members of the central 1970s Nazi-hunting crew —mastermind Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino) and his protégé Jonah (Logan Lerman) — sit before a chess board. Offerman explains that when he was in Auschwitz, a sadistic guard forced a Jewish chess master into routine games of “human chess” using the prisoners as pieces. When a prisoner was removed from gameplay, the opposite team’s prisoner, taking their square, stabbed them to death as armed guards stood by ready to shoot anyone who wouldn’t comply. One such match plays in a flashback; of the show’s many horrific cutaways to the camps and ghettos, this sequence is arguably the most disturbing.

But it’s also among the most ahistorical. As the Auschwitz museum tweeted on Sunday, the game was entirely made up: There is no record of anything like it ever occurring during the Holocaust. Its invention, the museum wrote, is “not only dangerous foolishness & caricature,” but “also welcomes future deniers.”

The show’s creator, David Weil, responded in a statement to Deadline, writing that while the show is inspired by true events it is “not a documentary. And it was never purported to be.”

“Why did I feel the need to create a fictional event when there were so many real horrors that existed?” he added. “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.”

Weil pointed out that he is far from the only filmmaker to have taken liberties with the Shoah in pursuit of the “representational truth of the Holocaust.” And he’s right: The most celebrated Holocaust dramas, from “Schindler’s List” to “Life is Beautiful,” all depart from fact for the sake of drama — but rarely so outlandishly.

The series is equally rooted in the horrors of the Holocaust and hyper-violent camp, a combination that makes it difficult to accept any of its claims as matters of historical record. Cutting between the exploits of a gun-toting, sailor-mouthed, Nazi-killing nun and a Shoah narrative makes for a challenging pivot. So while the chess scene is in some ways credible — Nazis were, as Weil said, known to play horrific “games” with prisoners — the choice to substitute an invented atrocity for a real one feels like a flippant heightening of the Holocaust to match the show’s over-the-top 1970s tone. That’s especially true given that Weil, after introducing the gruesome fictional chess game, turns chess into a guiding trope of the series.

Had Weil looked deeper into other genre fiction treatments of the Holocaust – the long saga of X-Men’s Magneto, say, or Ira Levin’s “The Boys from Brazil” — he might have found a way to avoid censure. Those works do just enough to engage with the Holocaust without tipping into exaggeration of historical fact, particularly regarding the operations of the camps; Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” another Nazi-killing fantasy, avoids the trap altogether by not showing the camps at all.

The museum contended that “Auschwitz was full of horrible pain & suffering documented in the accounts of survivors,” adding that “we honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at grisar@forward.com

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