The opening scene of Hunters, the new series from Amazon Prime starring Al Pacino and Logan Lerman as members of an intrepid band of American Nazi hunters, tells you everything that you need to know about the show:
The American Undersecretary of State Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker) welcomes his young subordinate Carl Hirsch and his pretty wife Helen (Izabella Miko) to a backyard barbecue at his palatial mansion in Washington’s Maryland suburbs. It’s the summer of 1977, and the late-afternoon light illuminates the bright, plastic excess of the all-American 1970s. But as the Hirsches skirt the pool, Helen freezes in horror: she is a Holocaust survivor, and she recognizes Simpson. He is a Nazi war criminal living under an assumed identity near the seat of power in Cold War America.
Thus exposed, Simpson retrieves a pistol from under the grill, and shoots Carl. He then murders the other guests… and his American wife… and his children swimming in the pool. Helen remains frozen in place as Biff, in classic Scooby-Doo-villain style, drops his fake southern accent and spills the beans.
“Thirty years of work that was. An entire life built. Marrying that American pig. Siring three tainted swine. How long I’ve wanted to snap their little necks. But their blood is on your hands, my girl. Leave it to the Jew to think only of its pathetic existence.”
“Biff” switches to his native German. “You though the war was over? No, dear. Only the dead know the end of war. We’re here now. Everywhere,” he says with a sneer as Helen begins to recite the Sh’ma Yisrael. “I’m so glad I didn’t gas you in the camps; this is so much more delicious… And what a hungry boy I’ve been. What hungry boys and girls we’ve all been.”
He shoots her
It’s a glorious, beautifully constructed, well-paced and shot piece of hyper-saturated comic-book filmmaking. But, at this moment in history, as the living memory of the Holocaust fades and fascists, antisemites, and latter-day Nazis are once more on the march, it feels like morally and politically degraded cinema.
I had been looking forward to Hunters from the moment the first promos started turning up on the Amazon Prime splash screen a couple of months ago. The premise – that, a generation after the collapse of the Third Reich, there are honest-to-God Nazis living secretly among us, some in positions of power and influence, and are hunted by a dedicated band of investigators – appealed to me. I expected a tale right out of Simon Wiesenthal’s Murderers Among Us, recounting the very real – are truly heroic efforts – to bring war criminals to justice.
I was expecting something gritty and exciting but, at the same time, thoughtful and intelligent. Instead, Hunters simply parrots the kind of mindlessly self-indulgent grindhouse excess that we have come to expect from Quentin Tarantino and his imitators.
It is an apt comparison; I have little doubt that creator David Weil, along with Jordan Peele, came up with the idea for Hunters after a late-night screening of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s blood-soaked 2009 anti-Nazi revenge fantasy. I can imagine him sitting on the sofa with a big bowl of Orville Redenbacher’s watching Eli Roth’s “Bear Jew” smash open a Nazi officer’s head with a baseball bat like it was a watermelon and yelling “that! I want more of that!”
To be honest, there is something compellingly primal about the kind of fantasy that Weil and Peel have concocted in Hunters. Pretty much every Jew I know has, at some point in their lives, fantasized about getting back at Nazis. The Holocaust haunts our nightmares – every one of us has had that, horrific, recurring dream of being chased by Nazis. In my own nightmare, which I have had innumerable times since I learned about the Holocaust, I am hiding in a basement, and I see the jackboots pass by the window to the street.
And then, they find me.
One of the ways that we have managed the horror of these visions is to tell ourselves that they will not find us. At Hebrew school at Temple Rodeph Shalom in the suburbs of Montreal, Scott Bergen, Mark Wener, Harris Breslow and I would often talk about how we would have fought back, joined the resistance, killed Nazis has we been there, as we studied for our Bar Mitvahs and our entry into manhood. So I get it.
But at the bottom of our revenge fantasies, and those of Inglourious Basterds and Hunters was a subtle moral judgment that I don’t think we fully grasped in the sunshine of our adolescent minds. We would not have been passive victims, led to the gas chambers by jackbooted legions; we would have fought back and destroyed those who would have destroyed us as Sampson brought the house down upon th Philistines! We would have been men, and not sheep led to slaughter. Implicitly, then, these revenge fantasies hold the six million – the victims of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Belzec – themselves at fault; they were morally inadequate, mere passive victims of the anti-Semitic genocide that has defined Jewish history.
I shuddered when Pacino’s Meyer Offerman made just that point in the first episode of Hunters as he initiated Lerman’s young Jonah Heidelbaum into the mysteries of his Nazi-hunting cohort.
Hunters is utterly unoriginal and derivative, and not only in the way that it parrots Tarantino’s aesthetic, or in the way that Jonah’s character arc – an everyman outsider is inadvertently recruited by a multiethnic team of heroes whose mission is to expose a horrifying conspiracy – seems drawn directly from The Boys, another Amazon Prime series. The series redeploys narratives of National Socialist diabolical genius and unspeakable depravity that once dominated the strange American Nazi fiction genre, and it does so uncritically, simply rearticulating the tropes in whole cloth, without making the slightest effort to reconfigure them.
The sensational capture of Adolph Eichmann in Buenos Aires by Israeli agents in 1960, and the publication of Wiesenthal’s bestselling book Murderers Among Us seven years later sparked a fad of fugitive Nazi narratives in American and British literature, film, and television that lasted until the late-1970s – incidentally the time when Hunters is set. Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling 1972 thriller The Odessa File, about a dedicated team of Mossad agents hunting down fugitive Nazis in 1960s Europe, is such an obvious template that I had to go back and read it.
Make no mistake, however: Wiesenthal was absolutely correct. There were Nazi war criminals living sometimes underground, but more often quite openly, in places like Argentina and even the United States. Some, like Josef Mengele, had hidden after the war from allied investigators and quietly made their way to South America. Others, like John Demjanjuk, inserted themselves into the postwar chaos of displaced persons camps, and came as refugees to new lives in the United States. Still others, like Werner von Braun, were recruited by the victorious allies through programs like Operation Paperclip to serve the superpowers’ Cold War interests. The US government never really hid the pasts of erstwhile war criminals like von Braun, exactly – it was widely-enough known for Peter Sellers’ savage lampoon of the Nazi scientist in Dr. Strangelove to hit its mark – but they just didn’t talk about it.
It was a conspiracy of silence, to be sure, at many levels of government, in the media, in the private and social lives of the fugitive war criminals, in the governments of the South American counties that sheltered them, and even in the West German government, which issued a passport to Mengele under his own name in 1956. But it was never a conspiracy on the scale imagined by Forsyth. It was an open secret, and the great achievement of real-life Nazi hunters like Wiesenthal, Beata Klarsfeld, and Efraim Zuroff was to tear the veil from the secret and make it fully open.
What they revealed was that these fugitives – to a man – were sad, pathetic men living out their bleak lives in constant fear of exposure. The Israeli agents who captured Eichmann found him living in a hovel without running water in a Buenos Aires slum; once exposed, Mengele ran, and ran again, always listening to the footsteps behind him until, under yet another assumed name, he had a stroke while swimming and drowned. Sitting in the dock in Dusseldorf in 1970, Franz Stangl was a grey, dismal figure; his heart gave out six months after his conviction.
Yet, this was not the image of the fugitive war criminal in the popular imagination. By the late-1960s, a narrative of the cunning, resourceful Nazi who had evaded capture after the war to reconvene with comrades in South America bent on recreating a Fourth Reich had come to dominate popular culture. The cover art for the Avon Books paperback edition of Ladislas Farago’s 1974 bestseller Aftermath: Martin Bormann and the Fourth Reich evoked it perfectly: A balding Martin Bormann, clad in a safari jacket, smirks at the reader from the Amazon jungle. Farago’s prose breathlessly warned that Hitler’s right hand man had built a vast conspiracy bent (once again) on global domination.
The rumor of Bormann’s survival – the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal convicted him in absentia – and subsequent conspiratorial efforts was just one of the most potent myths that sustained what can only be called the Nazi exploitation industry of the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1967 Mission: Impossible episode “The Legend,” Daniel Biggs and the Impossible Mission Force find him convening a secret Nazi meeting in South America. Although Bormann died while attempting to escape Berlin in May 1945 (human remains discovered in 1964 have been definitively identified as his), he was the kind of ghostly figure ideally suited to haunt our popular imaginations.
So was Mengele, whose likeness loomed like a demonic shadow in popular culture while the real “Angel of Death” dribbled out a squalid life in hiding. He was the satanic antagonist in Ira Levin’s 1976 novel The Boys From Brazil, played by Laurence Olivier in the 1978 film adaptation: a fiendish genius who planned to build a Fourth Reich around clones of Adolf Hitler himself. Indeed the indisputably fiendish Mengele was an archetype of the brilliant-but-depraved genius of Nazi exploitation literature. He was clearly the model for Dr. Christian Szell, “der Weisse Engel” (the “White Angel”) of William Goldman’s 1974 thriller Marathon Man – also played by Olivier in the film adaptation.
The myth of Nazi brilliance was a commonplace of postwar American culture, to the point where, in the 1968 Star Trek episode “Patterns of Force,” the 23rd century historian John Gill proclaims with his dying breath that Nazi Germany was “the most efficient” state Earth had ever known without any character contradicting him. Scholars like Franz Neumann and Raul Hilberg (whose seminal work The Destruction of European Jews was published in 1960) had long disposed of the myth of Nazi efficiency, and had conclusively shown that the Third Reich was a shambolical mess held together by little more than institutionalized brutality and hidebound bureaucracy. It was not efficiency so much as complete amorality; even von Braun’s vaunted genius was built on Jewish slave labor from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp.
The Nazis spent more than a decade promoting the propaganda image of the Aryan superman whose racial superiority was not merely physical but intellectual and, because they had spiffy uniforms and some cool gadgets like jet planes and V-2 rockets, a lot of Americans were more than happy to buy the line. It was no accident that the bestselling volumes of the Ballantine Illustrated History of World war II books in the 1960s and 1970s had titles like German Secret Weapons: Blueprint for Mars and Nazi Regalia (with, the cover copy promised, “over 100 brilliant four-color photographs”).
Everyone had these books – even Jewish kids like Scott, Mark, Harris, and me in suburban Montreal. We would often meet after classes in the synagogue basement to swap and trade them like valuable heirlooms. And the genre continues to thrive, though not in books, so much as in those innumerable History Channel shows like The SS, Nazi Megastructures, Nazi Mega Weapons, and so on. The deep fascination, bordering on warped worship, of Nazi “genius” continues to this day: any time that I have taught a college history class on the Second World War, I have had one or two students – always white and male – express their admiration for the Third Reich’s imagined superior technologies.
Developing in parallel with the postwar myth of Nazi brilliance was a narrative of unspeakable depravity that amplified, and often overshadowed the almost inconceivable evil of the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen and the Death Camps. Rumors of Nazis routinely making lampshades out of the skin of Death Camp inmates, or boiling human bodies down to make soap gained the currency of dubious fact when they were repeated uncritically by writers like Leon Uris, whose million-selling 1958 novel Exodus was uncritically embraced as history. Writing in Commentary in 1959, reviewer Joel Blocker noted that the novel’s overwhelming success “is due to its exceptional ability to tell its readers what they want to believe in simple, easily graspable terms.” And in 1958, numbed by the revelations of Auschwitz more than a decade before, readers wanted to believe that the Nazis were not merely evil, but transcendentally evil.
The brutal reality of bureaucratic genocide was not evil enough in the age of the hydrogen bomb. As Josef Stalin was often said to have remarked, “the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.” And the slaughter of eleven million people, including six million Jews, in the Holocaust was an enormity so difficult to comprehend that Nazi evil could only be understood in these smaller, more personal incidents of bestial depravity.
There was a ready audience for this kind of pornography of genocide in the postwar years, a genre exemplified by Yehiel De-Nur’s prurient 1953 book House of Dolls, published in English in 1955. Daniella, the Jewish heroine, is assigned to the “Joy Division,” a prison brothel in a Nazi concentration camp, where she endures sexual slavery and sickening degradation and torture at the hands of “the Blonde Beast,” the camp commander Yaga, and her minions. House of Dolls is a strange blend of Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS-style Nazi pornography – a genre that it clearly inspired – and survivor memoir and, although De-Nur insisted on its veracity, it is obviously a work of fiction. Yet it is a fiction that, in all of its excesses, stood in for reality in the popular imagination.
These sensational narratives are gripping and horrifying, even more than the historical record of millions of people marching to their methodical deaths in the fields of Eastern Europe and the gas chambers of the Death Camps; they are shocking and outrageous and, although they might have a marginal connection with historical reality, they are not entirely true.
There was, of course, a kernel of truth to the rumors. There were camp brothels in some concentration camps. In If This Is a Man, for example, Primo Levi writes of “Block 29, which always has its windows closed as it is the Frauenblock, the camp brothel, served by Polish Haftling girls, and reserved for the Reichsdeutsche.” But Jewish women were never assigned to them and contrary to the myths, the users were German and Polish inmates, and not the Nazi guards. Indeed, sexual contact between Jews and non-Jews was forbidden under the Nuremburg Laws of 1935.
And while the history of the Holocaust is run-though with all kinds of barbaric atrocties, the more explicitly sensational have little basis in fact. Despite the rumor – repeated so often, including by Uris, that it was widely accepted as fact – that Buchenwald Commandant Ilse Koch made lampshades from the skin of Jewish inmates, there was little evidence to support it.
Indeed, the Nazi killing machine, as loathsome as it was, disapproved of off-script excesses and personal savageries that might interfere with the dull, grey business of genocide. The SS relieved Kraków-Płaszów commandant Amon Göth – the homicidal villain of Schindler’s List – of his command in 1944, and arrested him for the crime of violating regulations regarding the treatment and punishment of prisoners. Never tried, Göth finished out the war confined to a mental hospital.
As Hannah Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem, the man who sat in the dock in Jerusalem in 1961 was no demonic presence; he was an entirely average man whose dominant character traits were a talent for self-deception and an enthusiasm for being part of something. He was thus not exceptional – a raving homicidal maniac – but ordinary. This was the real horror of the Holocaust, that its evil was banal.
Arendt noted that the prosecution’s case rested on the belief that Eichmann was a monster because any “normal person” would have been “aware of the criminal nature of his acts.” Any normal person would have recognized that what the Nazis were doing was wrong, and would have objected or declined to participate. Yet Arendt observes that “under the conditions of the Third Reich only ‘exceptions’ could be expected to react ‘normally.’”
The historian Christopher Browning later greatly elaborated on this notion in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. He found that these neighborhood police officers from Hamburg, sent to occupied Poland to round up and murder Jews, were rarely motivated by operatic barbarism, or what Daniel Goldhagen called “eliminationist antisemitism,” or by fear of reprisals, or deference to authority. Rather, they butchered almost 40,000 Jews between July 1942 and November 1943, mostly because of social pressure.
None of that excuses their crimes, but it has some “disturbing” implications. “Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms, “ Browning writes. “If the men of reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”
The conclusion that that the crimes of the Holocaust were perpetrated by the ordinary men, and not monsters, by the “normal” and not the “exceptional” has profound consequences that the myths of Nazi diabolical genius and pornographic cruelty – as gratifying as they might be as popular culture tropes – can only mystify. Arendt warned that it “is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past.”
This is a warning that neither Weil, nor Peele, nor anyone else involved in Hunters has heeded. The Holocaust war criminals that the eponymous team pursue are very much out of the pages of The Odessa file and House of Dolls, rather than any scrupulously-researchedwork of history. One of the show’s villains is Heinz Richter, a fictional SS officer at an equally fictionalized Auschwitz – where the inmates seem well-fed, and have a great deal of free time on their hands – who organizes brutal games of chess, using inmates as chess pieces. Another, Karl Holstedter, plays a game in which he demands that a group of Jewish inmates sing over the camp public address system, and summarily executes them with a shot to the head if they falter or sing off-key.
These, and other purported atrocities depicted in Hunters have two things in common: they are intensely dramatic, cinematic, and ideally suited to the medium of television, and they never happened… Although the human chess game did make an appearance in the 1980s video game Castle Wolfenstein.
Make no mistake this is a wildly entertaining series and the characters – except for Meyer, who Pacino plays with a mannered, over-the-top unctuousness that verges on Jewface – are compelling. The details of late-70s New York are beautifully rendered, and the production values are high. Besides, at this moment in history, when neo-Nazis chanting racist slogans march openly with police escorts, and antisemitic gunmen murder us in our Shuls or when we are simply shopping for groceries, there is something emotionally satisfying. Who doesn’t want to punch a Nazi these days? Hunters has a guaranteed audience.
But it is just this, our historical moment, that makes Hunters offensive and irresponsible. It promotes the myths of Nazi genius and fantasies of pornographic violence that inspire adolescent losers in the parents’ basements to seek self-actualization as Aryan heroes in neo-Nazi social media and in groups like Atomwaffen Division. They are watching, too, and the myths validate their white, racist, sophomoric fantasies.
More importantly, the extreme, cartoonish atrocities presented as history exculpate the actual horror of the Holocaust. If we can only represent evil in these theatrically histrionic terms, as Hunters seems to suggest, then how can we understand the real evil of the Holocaust in all its banality. It feels like Weil and Peel are more interested in the kind of fictional Nazis that inhabit Castle Wolfenstein than in real, historical Nazis.
But the real, factual history of the destruction of Europe’s Jews, Roma, and others is increasingly a matter of doubt. The Pew Research Center fount that 30 percent of Americans cannot say when the Holocaust actually happened, and most of them greatly underestimate the number of deaths – and it only gets worse among younger Americans. It’s not their fault, really; the details are receding into the past as the last survivors of the camps die in their old age, and the living memory of the Holocaust fades away. Soon, there will be no witnesses left, only the abstractions in our history books and our cultural representations.
That is what makes Hunters, for all of its style and entertainment value, deeply dangerous. By presenting us with compelling, demonic Nazi villains and astonishing tales of atrocity for shits n’giggles, it invites us to forget that one of the greatest crimes in human history was perpetrated by ordinary people, as a matter of policy. And in these dark times, it is a lesson that we can ill ignore.