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Amazon’s Nazi-Killer Epic Hunters Can’t Tell the Difference Between Vigilante Justice and Equal-Opportunity Sadism

7 minute read

If your aim is to tell a nuanced story about heroism, historical trauma and revenge, it’s probably best to keep Nazis—by which I mean the literal perpetrators of the Holocaust—out of it. From a thematic perspective, it’s very hard to win with these guys. Depict them as brilliant, bloodless killing machines, and you’ll burnish their terrifying mythology; choose instead to paint them as dimwitted, incompetent henchmen, and you’re liable to trivialize the suffering and deaths of millions. A few beloved films that take aim at Nazis have managed to avoid these traps by sacrificing emotional realism in favor of off-the-wall satire (The Producers) or sheer catharsis (Inglourious Basterds). Unfortunately, Amazon’s Hunters tries to juggle all three modes, for the duration of a 10-episode TV series, without anything approaching Mel Brooks’ wit or Quentin Tarantino’s technical flair.

Created by relative newcomer David Weil, Hunters will arrive on Prime Video on Friday, Feb. 21 with the imprimatur of executive producer Jordan Peele. It’s set in 1977—that culturally dense year remembered for Star Wars, punk, disco and the Son of Sam murders—and our hero is a young Jewish Brooklynite, Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman of Percy Jackson fame). Though he’d ideally be in college putting his prodigious smarts to use, Jonah is living at home, working in a comic store and moonlighting as the city’s most inept weed dealer in order to support the Holocaust-survivor grandma (Jeannie Berlin) who raised him. But there’s more to this doting matriarch than Jonah knows, until tragedy strikes and he meets her friend Meyer Offerman (the great Al Pacino, overdoing the stock old-Jewish-guy mannerisms a bit) and gets drawn into a squad of vigilantes assassinating members of a vast network of Nazis living under assumed names in the U.S.

Elsewhere in a 90-minute premiere that feels longer, a suburban-Maryland barbecue ends in a cartoonish burst of gunfire. Homegrown Nazi psycho Travis Leich (Greg Austin) calmly delivers wicked white-supremacist monologues in between calmly committing horrific acts of violence. And Millie Malone (Grey’s Anatomy alum Jerrika Hinton), a black woman struggling to earn respect in the overwhelmingly white, male FBI, is sent to Florida to investigate the murder of an elderly, female NASA scientist. The network of undercover Nazis starts to take shape, as does their evil plot to bring about a Fourth Reich on American soil.

Christopher Saunders/Amazon

Inspired in part by real mid-20th-century Nazi hunters and the shameful U.S. government initiative Operation Paperclip, Hunters shares with Peele’s movies an effort to use fun, propulsive genre storytelling as a vehicle for serious social commentary. Horror, for Peele, is a way of heightening our visceral responses to racism, exploitation, inequality. But Weil’s genre is action comedy, and the comedy in Hunters falls pretty flat. Dick jokes and scatological gags—some harrowingly visual—are constant. I’m not scandalized by this kind of humor, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it were confined to Jonah and his teen pals (one of whom is called “Bootyhole”). Instead, we hear it from good guys, bad guys, young, old and everyone in between.

These aren’t the only characterizations that feel shallow or underdeveloped. Millie so closely resembles the righteous, earnest detective characters in network procedurals that her scenes almost seem spliced in from a different show. Opting to portray the Nazis as a hierarchy of cartoon villains, Weil makes them so uniformly crafty and fearsome that you can imagine contemporary neo-Nazis watching Hunters and feeling pretty good about their forebears. More disappointing are the Jewish characters, whose personalities are largely accumulations of benign stereotypes, religious factoids and firsthand or inherited trauma. Gefilte fish comes up so often, you’d think every Jew on the planet devoured those gelatinous gray discs daily. Though I wasn’t alive, much less in New York, in 1977, I did grow up Jewish among Jews of Meyer’s and Jonah’s generations, and for me these depictions (like gefilte fish) didn’t pass the smell test.

It seems obvious that caricatures of Jews, even affectionate ones, don’t make a very effective case against antisemitism. But the show also makes subtler, equally unfortunate choices in the way it represents racism. When it’s convenient to the story, anti-Jewish prejudice appears to eclipse or even erase the violence and discrimination nonwhite characters face—such as when Jonah’s black female love interest is dating a belligerent white guy who calls Jonah a “kike.”

Jerrika Hinton in 'Hunters'Amazon Studios, Prime Video—Christopher Saunders

The show’s biggest problem is the garbled messages it sends about violence and revenge. Like Tarantino, Weil palpably savors the suffering of Nazis and wants viewers to do the same. (There’s one particularly gross torture scene whose pleasures Amazon has cautioned me against “spoiling” with a description here.) And I’m not above admitting that I frequently felt a thrilling sense of poetic justice at the sight of mass murderers dying the same gruesome deaths they inflicted on millions of innocent victims. Yet Hunters also shows us those tragic deaths—both in flashbacks to the concentration camps and through the resurgent Reich’s crimes in its new home. Often they’re rendered glibly enough to be indistinguishable from the righteous kills. In a scene set amid the ironic brightness of a bowling alley, Travis, a near-omniscient villain of Coen Brothers proportions, smashes a guy’s teeth in with a bowling ball.

To his credit, Weil’s intention isn’t really to conflate genocide with vengeance for same. In interviews, he talks about growing up with a grandmother who survived the Holocaust and how as a kid her stories sounded to him like “the stuff of comic books and superheroes,” tales of “great good but grand evil.” He’s said that he hopes Hunters can provide “catharsis” and “wish fulfillment.” But he’s also observed that it “becomes this story that lives not in black and white, but in the gray and that murky morality,” posing the question: “If we hunt these monsters, do we risk becoming them ourselves?” Some of that ambivalence comes through in Jonah’s queasiness about becoming a killer, which inspires an intriguing but all-too-brief consideration of whether it’s possible to be a superhero—to be a good person who can stomach massacring bad people—if you don’t harbor considerable darkness of your own. But mostly, the show’s choice to make all forms of violence entertaining overshadows that nuance. At worst, Hunters can lose its antifascist chutzpah and start to come across as equal-opportunity sadistic.

It’s an unfortunate—perhaps the single most unfortunate—fact of life in 2020 that Nazis have recently goose-stepped their way into mainstream American politics, and thus that stories about killing them have begun to resonate as subversive for the first time in our history. That shouldn’t render them off-limits for the entertainment industry. (Just last year, HBO’s comic-book adaptation Watchmen used the superhero genre to launch a withering critique of white supremacy and its insidious, systemic influence in the U.S.) But it does mean that storytellers across media need to be cognizant of the moral and political undertones of their portrayals to an extent that Weil and co-showrunner Nikki Toscano don’t seem to have been. I trust that they as well as Peele, a busy filmmaker whose level of creative input here is unclear, have their hearts in the right place. It’s just a shame that there seems to be so much distance between what Hunters wants to say and what it actually expresses.

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