In bringing back ‘Hunters,’ Amazon fails the test of history — and good taste
Somehow, the outrage over the series’ invented Holocaust atrocities — most notably a game of deadly “human chess” — wasn’t enough to squash interest in a follow-up for a show that Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, describes as “the most egregious distortion of Holocaust history in my lifetime.”
“As Jew hatred surges and conspiracy theories spread, Amazon’s decision to renew its deceptive, ahistorical frivolity is a slap in the face to survivors,” Smith said in a statement to the Forward. “We need to educate people about history and keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, not offer up pulp nonsense that depicts Jews as vengeful vigilantes.”
For those unfamiliar, “Hunters” is about a diverse corps of Nazi hunters based in 1970s New York City who track down war criminals and murder them in sadistically contrapasso ways. Smith’s objection to the show stems in large part from its presentation of Jewish survivors as violently retributive, a serious deviation from the historical truth, in which survivors non-violently worked with governments to expose and prosecute Nazis. Real figures like Serge and Beate Klarsfeld and Simon Wiesenthal, the likely inspiration for “Hunters” ringleader Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), never lapsed into what Smith termed as the show’s “specious spectacle of eye-for-eye justice.”
But that oversight isn’t not the only instance where the slick and gory drama makes for a troubling historical fiction.
The show takes its concept in part from the top secret Operation Paperclip, a program to bring Nazi scientists to the United States that was, in fact, only secret for about a year before the press unearthed it and the prominent Nazi engineer Wernher von Braun started making appearances in Disney documentaries. But in “Hunters,” Operation Paperclip is subject to a massive cover-up that’s only discovered during the Carter Administration. This historical adjustment means that the stand-ins for real-life Nazis, who in actuality remade their lives in their adoptive country without having to conceal their identities, are hiding under aliases. Smith, in calling for Amazon to cancel the show this March, also took the show to task for inventing Nazis who are presented as “famous” — and by implication real — but never actually existed. One of them is described as being “worse than Mengele.”
As I noted in a review of the show’s first season, “Hunters” suffers from a distasteful whiplash between its tone, that of a campy grindhouse film homage, and the historical heft of its subject. While showrunner and creator David Weil attempted to use his series to examine the moral ambiguity of revenge — in the pilot, the characters debate whether Darth Vader’s evil is a result of nature or nurture — the show’s gimmicks and cute ruptures of the fourth wall fail the task. That’s a shame, because actual Nazi hunters deserve a highly-produced treatment of their lives that responds to a different ethical question: What is a survivor’s duty to pursue justice, while not resorting to the kind of violence visited on them?
The show complicated any inquiry into that last query in the first season’s finale, in which — spoilers — the show revealed that Meyer Offerman was actually an immensely cruel Auschwitz doctor called “the Wolf” who stole the real Offerman’s identity after the war and began the business of Nazi-hunting as penance. This twist places “Offerman“‘s tactics squarely in the Nazi playbook, which could have made for an interesting point of distinction between him and his Jewish protege, Jonah (Logan Lerman). But then, Jonah knives him to death. The bloody cycle of vengeance continues.
Without Pacino, whose performance carried the show, is there even a point in making a second season? Given that the finale set us up to have the next season focus in part on a wizened Hitler alive and well in Argentina with an implied army of his cloned kinder, our guess would be no.
As Smith wrote in March, the “plausible fiction” of the show “muddies the historical record, disrespects those who perished, and provides ammunition to those who seek to deny the truth of the Holocaust.” In greenlighting another round, Amazon has failed to read the room. A second season is a failure not just to history, but to the present.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]