A historian’s review of Amazon’s “Holocaust revenge saga” Hunters

Amazon’s new series Hunters, starring Al Pacino, has made headlines for its controversial decisions. Historian Bill Niven considers the scenes in the “Holocaust revenge saga” that might be inspired by real events – and explores the choices behind those that are not…

Al Pacino and Logan Lerman in Amazon Prime's 'Hunters'.

Note: this review contains major spoilers for the Amazon Prime series Hunters

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Amazon’s television drama Hunters, created by David Weil – American grandson of a Holocaust survivor – has caused anger. On 24 February, the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau accused the 10-part series in a tweet of “dangerous foolishness & caricature”, and even of “welcoming future deniers”. The complaint referred to a game of chess depicted in the opening episode, in which the SS use prisoners at Auschwitz as chess pieces, forcing them to kill each other in the course of the game. There never was such a chess game at Auschwitz. The idea was probably pinched from Dan Simmons’ 1989 sci-fi novel Carrion Comfort. Weil defended the fictionalisation: “After all, it is true that Nazis perpetrated widespread and extreme acts of sadism […] against their victims. I simply did not want to depict those specific, real acts of trauma.”

The debate over the chess game and other inventions in the series (such as an imaginary murderous singing competition at Buchenwald) has dominated discussion of it. Fundamental issues are at stake. Should film directors and authors always depict the Holocaust as it was? If they do, they might be accused of an intrusive, voyeuristic recreation of unspeakable horrors. Or should they represent it through metaphors, parallels, invented scenarios? In which case, as here, they can be taken to task for misrepresentation. These issues are almost as old as the Holocaust itself.

Fundamental issues are at stake. Should film directors and authors always depict the Holocaust as it was?

However, given increasing anti-Semitism, ignorance of the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, concerns about the possible impact of depictions that dispense with historical accuracy are growing. The Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau has also objected recently to errors in Heather Morris’s novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), and John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). Fiction, for sure, is not supposed to be documentary. The problem comes when fiction, or feature film, disingenuously depends on an impression of authenticity for its effect, and is then used in schools to teach the Holocaust.

The perimeter fence of Auschwitz concentration camp.
The perimeter fence of Auschwitz concentration camp. Concerns about the possible impact of depictions that dispense with historical accuracy are growing, says Bill Niven. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

 

Altering history?

Hunters is a Holocaust revenge saga. Former prisoners of Auschwitz (Mindy, Murray and Meyer), the grandson of an Auschwitz prisoner (Jonah), a former Kindertransportee (Sister Harriet), a down-on-his-luck American-Jewish actor (Lonny Flash), a Vietnam war veteran (Joe) and a young black American woman (Roxy) team up to kill off Nazis who managed to escape to the USA after the war. At the same time, they are confronted by a group of Nazis setting out to establish a Fourth Reich, the first stage of which involves poisoning American inner cities with contaminated corn syrup. Described like this, the plot sounds rather ludicrous, but the creators of Hunters do borrow from history – while altering it at will.

For instance, in 1945 a group of Holocaust survivors, known as ‘Nakam’ and led by Israeli poet and leader Abba Kovner, did set out to poison six million Germans to avenge the Holocaust. The plan came to nothing because Kovner, on his way back from Palestine with the poison, was arrested by the British. Weil shifts the historical vengeance plot to the 1970s, and transfers the poison idea to the Nazis, spearheaded by Lena Olin, known as ‘the Colonel’.

The “Holocaust revenge saga” sees a cast of figures team up to kill off Nazis who managed to escape to the USA after the war. (Image by Christopher Saunders / Amazon Studios)

It was in 1945, too, that the Americans began ‘Operation Paperclip’, whereby around 1,600 Germans scientists – many of whom were Nazis or had collaborated with Nazism – were brought to the United States to help, among other things, with the American postwar rocket programme. In Hunters, some of these Nazi scientists (such as Wernher von Braun) are in cahoots with the group associated with the Colonel. The series itself acknowledges that Nazis living in America simply wanted to build new careers – so it strains credibility when Hunters asks us to accept they might simultaneously want to support a new Nazi Reich.

Hunters not only borrows from history, it also borrows from previous literary and filmic evocations of a potential Nazi takeover – discussed in fascinating detail by Gavriel D Rosenfeld in his book The Fourth Reich (2019). Many of these can be dated back to the very era that Hunters depicts, namely the 1970s. That Hunters is set in the 1970s is, then, quite intentional. The TV series is in this sense a historical drama, reflecting the anxieties of the period around totalitarianism, a possible ‘nuclear Holocaust’, and the rise of neo-Nazism in the USA. Significantly, too, it begins in the year 1977. This was the year Howard Blum published his revealing book Wanted! The Search for Nazis in America, and when the New York City murders by serial killer David Berkowitz, the notorious ‘Son of Sam’, escalated prior to his arrest. Uncomfortably, it is the killings staged by the group around the Holocaust survivors in Hunters that recall the Berkowitz murders.

The creators of 'Hunters' do borrow from history – while altering it at will

But why was it that Weil decided to make a series about the 1970s in the year 2020? Hunters is a satirical pastiche, mocking fears of a Fourth Reich while appearing to take them seriously. In many ways its most interesting aspect is its deployment of pop music from the period in the context of egregious killings and genocidal plots. It also parodies the sadistic Nazi ‘sexploitation’ films of the 1970s, although its own relationship to the gory violence it portrays is too self-indulgent to be truly critical. The series is rich in other allusions to 1970s culture, as when the young neo-Nazi Travis disposes of a fellow rival (to the attentions of the Colonel) by means of a chainsaw, bringing to mind the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre film of 1974 – though earlier decades are here as well, because Travis goes about his work singing the lyrics of ‘Tonight’from the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story (adapted into a film in 1961). Hunters diagnoses the neuroses and pathologies of times gone by. It explores institutionalised racism and homophobia; the black policewoman, Millie, is the victim of both. It exposes corruption, and glaring injustices in the police, judiciary, banking and politics.

At the same time, however, Hunters is very much about today, because some of these problems are still with us. Concerns about white supremacism and anti-Semitism, which have been on the rise in the USA and elsewhere, haunt the series. Recent debates around the looting of Nazi art works, much of it stashed away in Swiss banks, are reflected in a number of scenes. And Hunters partakes of a reinvigorated trend in Holocaust revenge fantasies that seems to have taken off since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). Such fantasies, I believe, respond to a contemporary sense that the process of coming to terms with Nazism may well have failed. Hunters does not necessarily advocate taking justice into your own hands, even if its ethical stance on killing Nazis in cold blood – and often with relish – is rather equivocal. What it does is imagine a situation in which Holocaust victims are constrained into seeking brutal redress by the total failure of the postwar judicial and political system to address adequately the crimes of Nazism. Revenge is desperation.

A promotional poster for Amazon Prime's Hunters
‘Hunters’ imagines a situation in which Holocaust victims are constrained into seeking brutal redress. says Bill Niven.

One might object that Weil’s anti-Nazi vigilantes are no better than the Nazis they seek to kill, but Hunters depicts them as psychologically damaged: Sister Harriet by forced conversion following the Kindertransport, for instance; Mindy and Murray, particularly the latter, by the murder of their child at Auschwitz. The main protagonist, young Jonah Heidelbaum, is racked by guilt at not having prevented his grandmother’s murder. Traumas drive behaviour. The fact that killing the odd Nazi soon turns into stopping a renewed Nazi attempt at genocide serves to exonerate and even justify those killings. The vigilantes, by the end, are heroes. FBI investigator Millie moralises to Jonah about the iniquities of personal vendettas, but she simultaneously collaborates with Jonah, Meyer and the others. Weil portrays the anti-Nazis as morally tortured souls, while the Nazis are pure cardboard cut-outs. The Colonel can do nothing apart from smile while spouting venom. Travis, a Nazi white supremacist, excels in expressionlessness, unless he is grinning. Tobias is a bullying weakling. Biff, a Nazi undersecretary of State in Carter’s administration, vacillates between smart-talking bonhomie and viciousness. None of the Nazis are given profile or character, and it is this, in the end, that makes Hunters a disappointing watch. Weil is not interested in Nazis or what makes them tick. As a result, it is hard to take them seriously. That, in itself, trivialises the Holocaust.

*Warning, major spoiler ahead*

In the last episode, it turns out Meyer is in fact the Nazi Wilhelm Zuchs: he stole Meyer’s identity to escape the Allies, and then morphed into a Jew, seeking to expiate his crimes, while perhaps trying to foster anti-Semitic conspiracy theories by getting rich and powerful, and masterminding mysterious murders. If the Jew leading the anti-Nazis is himself a Nazi, then we don’t need to reflect so much on the moral question of Jews taking revenge. Now, we are dealing with Nazis hunting Nazis. This seems like a cop-out. Will there be a second series? If so, the descent into sheer silliness at the end of the first series does not augur well, when the real identity of a key character is revealed – and it is hard to see that there is anywhere useful to go from thereon.

Author’s note: My thanks to Benita Blessing, Alex Paul, Gavriel Rosenfeld and Amy Williams for sharing their thoughts on the series with me. 

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Bill Niven is professor in Contemporary German History at Nottingham Trent University