‘Hunters’ transforms history books into comic books
Gina Twardosz | Thursday, March 26, 2020
“Escapism” might not be the right word to describe a show about Nazis, revenge and the Holocaust, but if you’re looking for a show that crosses genres and delivers highly stylized action sequences — all while sticking to an appealing 1970s aesthetic — then Amazon Prime’s “Hunters” is the show for you.
I was initially excited about “Hunters.” The cast is packed with stars, ranging from legendary actors, like Al Pacino, to contemporary actors returning to the small screen, like “Percy Jackson” heartthrob Logan Lerman or Josh Radnor, previously of the hit sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” “Hunters” is produced by Jordan Peele, who, with movies like “Get Out” and “Us,” needs no introduction at this point. The rest of the racially diverse cast is packed with strong character actors — “Hunters” also features LGBTQ+ representation by spotlighting Agent Mollie Morris’ relationship with her girlfriend Maria.
The aesthetic of “Hunters” seems to pay homage both to “Mad Men’s” attention to historical detail and the hyper-violent, superhero archetypes present in the Marvel/Netflix crossovers “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones.”
The plot is that Meyer Offerman, played by Pacino, has gathered an elite group of superhero-like renegades tracking down the Nazis who have infiltrated America since World War II. Jonah Hiedalbaum (Lerman) becomes involved when his grandmother, who was a part of the hunters, and the love interest of Offerman, is killed by a Nazi she was tracking.
Such a show becomes problematic, however, when it obscures the lines between fact and fiction. The premise of the show has basis in truth — after the Holocaust, many Nazi scientists were poached by some of America’s top organizations, including NASA; as referenced in “Hunters,” with the help of Nazi scientists in Operation Paperclip, America got to the moon. When Agent Morris notices the paperclip indent on several files of suspected Nazi scientists, it’s a nod to a real-life scheme — under President Truman, the paperclip was used to signify that immigration papers for these Nazis should be “fast-tracked” and not scrutinized.
Once this information was discovered, the Department of Justice sought to prosecute these Nazis for war crimes, giving the historical background for the conception of the show’s own Nazi hunters. However, this is the extent of the historical retelling. “Hunters,” in an effort to tell an original story in a highly stylized way full of hyper-violence, takes many liberties with characters, historical or not, and “historical” events.
“Hunters” was particularly lambasted — by the Auschwitz Memorial no less — for inventing a scene of sadistic torture executed by Nazis onto Jewish people in a concentration camp. The scene includes a chess game with human chess pieces, and the pieces who are “jumped” are murdered. While the Nazis certainly were no strangers to sadism, the Auschwitz Memorial said in a tweet, “Inventing a fake game of human chess for [“Hunters”] is not only dangerous foolishness and caricature. It also welcomes future deniers. We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy.”
“Hunters” is not a documentary. “Hunters” creator David Weil explained the scene was a symbolic way to cut to the chase: Nazis are murderers. Weil wrote in response to the Auschwitz Memorial that he wanted the scene to “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.”
The show takes other liberties, though, including the implication that the 1977 New York City blackout was instigated by Nazis (It wasn’t). This is all a part of a plan to institute a “Fourth Reich” in the United States — again, something that didn’t happen.
Still with me so far? I promise you don’t have to be a history scholar to understand the plot of “Hunters.” The majority of the characters in the show are fictional creations, and many of them are compelling in the way they grapple with the ethics of killing Nazis.
This is the main point of turmoil for Jonah: Even though Nazis killed his relatives, he has to reckon with the consequences of his own violence. From a black and white perspective, Jonah has every reason to enact revenge on the Nazis — it’s an eye for an eye. But, he initially suffers from a moral dilemma and an inability to end another human life, and it is this empathy that separates him from the Nazis. In fact, many of the characters exercise empathy, humanity and some, especially characters close to Jonah, end up sacrificing themselves for the greater common good.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, Jonah’s friend Bootyhole, (that’s his name, apparently), covers Jonah’s shift at a comic book store as Jonah grapples with the role he is going to play as a Nazi hunter. A Nazi sent to kill Jonah goes to the store looking for Jonah and instead finds Booty — who says he is Jonah, knowing that Jonah is in trouble. This comes after Jonah and Booty talk about what it means to be a real-life superhero. Booty sees himself as a sidekick, but at this moment, he decides to become a hero which ultimately costs him his life. “Hunters” deliberates on who gets to be a hero and what it means to save the day — something that is never without its risks.
As evident in that scene, and throughout the show, I did have a problem with the gratuitous violence, which is rare for me. I enjoy the hyper-violence present in such film franchises like “John Wick” or TV shows based on graphic novels like “Preacher.” Those universes are entirely fictional, though. Especially in “John Wick,” the characters are locked inside their own highly stylized universe, one with its own specific rules. When you watch those movies, it’s easy to dispel the violence because that world is closed off from our world — it’s easy to see that it’s not real.
But, for shows like “Hunters” that blur the line between fact and fiction, it was hard to watch Nazis kill Jewish people (even if those characters were not real) because Nazis did actually kill Jewish people. There’s no staying inside a bubble while watching “Hunters.” And, that just may be the most important part of the show itself.
There’s historical and social significance in being reminded of the atrocities of World War II. Before the war, many countries knew what Hitler intended to do with what he called the “Untermensch,” yet they did nothing to try and stop him. Ignorance can make us complicit — that’s why it’s so important these stories keep being told.
“Hunters” operates in the great tradition of comic book justice. The show is riddled with intentional references to superheroes: Not only were most superheroes created by Jewish immigrants, “Hunters” attempts to portray an idealized version of justice and thrust Jewish people back into the spotlight. Jewish Holocaust survivors are the superheroes of real life, and “Hunters” does a good job of reminding us of that.
Created by: David Weil
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
Favorite episode: “The Mourners Kaddish”
If you like: “Preacher,” “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones”