Television’s goriest Holocaust revenge fantasy has had a change of heart — will it matter?
Hunters season two opens in Austria and, even before it showed a pair of severed eyeballs affixed to a butter sculpture as a Yiddish version of Kelis’ “Milkshake” plays, the show sent my stomach lurching.
Before the story catches us up with the titular squad of multi-ethnic Nazi killers, now on the hunt for Hitler, it gives us a familiar setup. A woman in all white, with a frosty, pan-European accent, enters a candy shop in the fictional alpine town of Van Glooten during its annual butter sculpture contest. It’s 1972, but she is pulling from a 1940s playbook, interrogating the proprietor, first about his store and finally, his ethnicity. She’s spotted a faded outline of a removed mezuzah on the doorpost. The owner denies being Jewish, but she doesn’t buy it.
“Before the war this town was home to 1,000 Jews,” the woman explains. “There were orders for them to be deported July 22nd, 1942. But they just disappeared … Perhaps they put on a cross, took their mezuzahs down and became Christians. But Christians they cannot be. A rat cannot be a lion.”
I began drafting an email to the USC Shoah Foundation for comment. I couldn’t believe that this show, which the Auschwitz Memorial Museum blasted for fabricating a gory game of “human chess” at the camp, would begin its second season by suggesting that 1,000 Austrian Jews escaped the Holocaust by pretending to be Christians. It was precisely the kind of revisionism that angered the show’s critics. Worse, it was fuel for deniers and minimizers.
And then, the script flipped to reveal the real fate of the town’s Jews, the store’s original owners and (spoilers) the genial proprietor’s peepers. I should have seen the twist coming, or at least recognized the actor playing the woman in white (Jewish star Jennifer Jason Leigh, a highlight as always). But then, I was primed for the worst. My expectations were low, but the show anticipated a critic like me, transforming itself into a commentary on the politics of the Holocaust revenge plot and what creator David Weil called, in a letter defending his work to the Auschwitz museum, “symbolic reality.”
The new Hunters is a very different enterprise from the sophomoric, tonally queasy first entry. Weil seems to have heard the institutional complaints, shifted gears and steered clear of Shoah shock value — even if his comments to the press belie the growth he’s made.
Promoting season two, Weil called it “a show about catharsis, about Jewish empowerment, and about wish fulfillment for Jewish kids like me who grew up wanting to reclaim power.” Weil is describing an impetus that Daniel H. Magilow, co-author of Holocaust Representations in History: An Introduction, identified in revenge films like Inglorious Basterds, as “an aspiration to break free of the constraints of filmic representations of Holocaust victimhood have placed on Jewish identity.”
This subversive view meshes with the genre aesthetics of Hunters’ first season, which featured fake grindhouse trailers and tourist ads for Nazi relocation in the American heartland that break the fourth wall to say this “fucked-up shit” really happened (albeit in a much different manner).
The show’s pilot begins with nerdy teens diagnosing Darth Vader’s psychopathy and goes on to craft a Spider–Man-like origin story for the protagonist, comic-book store employee Jonah (Logan Lerman), killing his surrogate parent and setting him on a path toward complicated moral dilemmas. While the hyperviolence and anachronistic needle-drops at the start of season two suggest more of the same, the series has in fact almost entirely left these childish things behind. Jonah is a man — with a beard, fiancée and dark secrets to prove it.
The only real B-movie residue that remains is the career of hunter and matinee idol Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), who (somehow) is an Oscar contender for a film where he plays a Jewish hitman who has to kill eight men before Shabbat. Even the ripped-from-Boys From Brazil Hitler clones we were promised in 2020 appear to be off elsewhere — perhaps at a boarding school or rehomed with civil servant fathers and doting mothers.
And then there is the nature of the kills. While that opening de-eying is particularly brutal, the Hunters mostly stab and shoot rather than visit karmic torture on their quarry as they’ve done in the past. Most significantly, they are no longer tracking down high-profile Nazis living under aliases in the U.S.
Scattered throughout the globe and later reunited, the team is now after the ultimate prize, the Führer himself, who is living a quiet life on an estate in South America while Eva Braun schemes to build a Fourth Reich. If this is where Hunters the series began, not with its infamous game of human chess or its gassing of an elderly ex-Nazi chemist, I suspect most of the outrage would be muted or soon forgotten. Hunting Hitler has a long, storied history.
What makes ‘Hunters’ different?
When Inglorious Basterds burst into theaters, exploding Hitler and his ministers in a maelstrom of bullets and burning celluloid, Jeffrey Goldberg said it was a film “no Jewish director could have made.”
“It is difficult to imagine a Jew in Hollywood — each one more self-conscious than the next — portraying Jews as vengeance-seeking knifemen,” Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic.
As Magilow has observed, there is a longstanding taboo surrounding depictions of Jews seeking violent vengeance or, more to the point, being lowered to the level of Nazis for exacting it. The anxiety is rooted in concerns about Holocaust denial and inversion, historical accuracy and, per Magilow, a political demand to “perpetuate an aura of uniqueness” around the Shoah.
Basterds had no such neuroses, which may be why some found its ethic so “un-Jewish.” But over a decade on, it’s not very controversial. Neither is the tiny, cottage industry of Nazi revenge thrillers, among them Remember, which featured Christopher Plummer as an elderly survivor and This Must Be the Place, with Sean Penn as an over-the-hill rock star on the trail of his father’s tormentor from Auschwitz. Certainly none have prompted quite the outrage as Hunters, which Stephen D. Smith of the USC Shoah Foundation called “the most egregious distortion of Holocaust history in my lifetime.”
The difference in reception seems to have several factors. Unlike many counter-historical works like Inglorious Basterds, Hunters went further in its revisionism by filming scenes set at Nazi death centers and inventing a sensationalistic atrocity. The first season’s washed-out flashback scenes of Auschwitz rose to a level of unnerving camp. (Recently, FX’s The Patient made use of similar imagery, but was sage enough not to have it interrupt a dance sequence to “Stayin’ Alive” at Coney Island’s Luna Park.)
There’s also the context. The Basterds, like the Bielski brothers in Defiance, are in a war, where killing is a matter of survival. The self-appointed avengers of films like This Must Be the Place or even Magneto in an iconic scene in X-Men: First Class, are acting on their own. In 2010’s The Debt, the plan is to bring a Nazi in alive to face justice and in Operation Finale, based on the real Mossad abduction of Adolf Eichmann, that’s exactly what the operatives do.
Closer perhaps to Weil’s influences, the ‘70s Nazi conspiracy thriller The Odessa File dodges moral conundrums with a protagonist who isn’t explicitly Jewish (in any case Jon Voight plays him). Marathon Man, as Magilow notes, changed its vengeful ending, which would have seen Dustin Hoffman’s character kill the sadistic dentist who tortured him. The reason for the change was Hoffman’s insistence that he “won’t become a Nazi to kill a Nazi.”
Hunters, in the character of Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), was bolder. It dared to suggest that, decades after the war, a prosperous and respected leader of a Jewish foundation was orchestrating extrajudicial murders, misrepresenting the legal method by which real Jewish Nazi hunters brought their targets to justice. But that critique is only part of the story in a show that, controversially, blends fact and fiction and real figures and invented ones.
In the first season of Hunters, Judd Hirsch, as Simon Wiesenthal, briefly offers an alternative to Offerman’s crusade, questioning the Jewishness of killing Nazis in cold blood. “If we follow your path and compromise our morals,” Wiesenthal tells him, “then we Jews will eradicate ourselves.”
But Wiesenthal’s perspective is not definitively that of the show’s, particularly when compared to other works that invoke him.
While sharing a lot in look, feel and parts of its premise with Boys from Brazil, Hunters presents a counterpoint to that film and book’s largely unwavering, if skeptical, message of anti-vengeance, embodied by the Wiesenthal-inspired character of Ezra Lieberman. In the film, Laurence Olivier’s Lieberman dismisses an organization modeled after the Jewish Defense League as “radicals” for wanting to kill Nazis; in Hunters, the radicals are our main characters — though they never do go so far as to ponder the death of child clones of Hitler.
“Hunters does not dare resolve the moral dilemmas offered by The Boys from Brazil,” Reed College professor Marat Grinberg wrote in an essay on Holocaust representation in television. “Instead it offers the righteousness and legitimacy of Jewish militancy in confronting evil. It’s not revenge that becomes a supreme value, but the Jewish obligation, rooted to birthright, to defend themselves.”
In season two of Hunters, the question of what form Jewish defense should take is given further scrutiny. Meyer Offerman, whose message of revenge as “mitzvah,” is dead. Jonah unmasked him as a notorious Nazi, calling into question his tit-for-tat tactics. What the dispersed members of Jonah’s team must decide is if his ideas died with him.
‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue’ (but how?)
Weil said in an interview with Screen Rant that this new season is largely about who is best equipped to seek justice for those who have been wronged.
“Is it our institutions which are very flawed? Or is it actually potentially with the right people taking justice and matters into their own hands.”
Without giving too much away, the show ultimately lands on the side of due process (when and if you can get it). For all the fears of framing Nazi hunters as vigilantes inclined toward sadism, the path of judicial justice is offered as the better course. Hirsch as Wiesenthal returns as Offerman’s foil in flashback scenes, and has a lot more to say.
When Offerman dismisses Wiesenthal’s faith in “the slow grind of the gears of justice,” Wiesenthal retorts, in a cringey exchange, “when a people are considered rats and roaches … we don’t have the luxury to meddle in the sewers.”
Certainly this critique is not limited to the actual prosecution of Nazis, which goes on to this day.
It’s worth remembering season two has Lonny Flash starring in a film about an Orthodox hitman (and, I think, if the timing lines up, beating out Dustin Hoffman for best actor in Kramer vs. Kramer). The fact that Weil was made to defend his show against the censure of Jewish institutions connects Wiesenthal’s words about “meddling in the sewers” to the question of acceptable representation. Must we always be righteous, catering to an outside perception? Or can we fudge the facts to portray ourselves as more than victims and less than complete innocents devoid of rage?
If the dialogue isn’t always sparkling (at one point Jonah paraphrases Hillel — “if not me, then who” — to justify his murders), this debate achieves a kind of clarity amid the noise and spectacle.
Didactic speeches about Holocaust denial, ethical justice and historical memory eat up minutes of screentime, and they sound suspiciously like the op-eds and press statements that decried the show’s prior failings. There is even a tense exchange, reminiscent of one in the film Skokie, about whether Jewish values can be realized in defending a Nazi.
I don’t expect this final season to win over the initial critics, even if it seems to be at pains to satisfy them. (It still does, after all, dispatch elderly Nazis with a high level of impunity.) I’d be lying to say it didn’t surprise me by evolving beyond schlocky tropes and dumb jokes that made the first season so dissonant. Weil is being a lot more cautious in this second and final outing.
Even in “The Home,” the show’s most experimental episode, and the only one directed by Weil himself, he is careful to make sure its over-the-top cinematic language is couched in Jonah’s perspective.
“I used to think there was no such thing as ghosts,” Jonah says as he marches a high-level Nazi through the pampas. “Then I heard a story — an old story. It goes like this …”
An architect and his wife, living in the country, are visited by the SS, who are on the hunt for Jews. Through a series of clever traps, the Nazis meet their grisly ends in whimsical montages that recall Wes Anderson and the prologue of Inglorious Basterds. If the episode, which largely stands alone, and pokes fun at the previous season’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall, feels out of place, it adds up when we consider the show as a whole. Maybe what we’re being shown — the made-up sadistic games, the winks to genre, the butter sculpture enucleation — comes from a perspective that is less than reliable, even as it strives for emotional truth.
Jonah, the grandson of a survivor, raised on comic books and exploitation films, is telling us a story. Weil, another grandson of a survivor and with the same influences, is doing the same thing with Hunters, and we needn’t accept it as a true history.