The emptiness of televised Nazi hunting

Amazon's new TV show ‘Hunters’ inadvertently reveals the limits of vengeance.

The emptiness of televised Nazi hunting

Amazon's new TV show ‘Hunters’ inadvertently reveals the limits of vengeance.

I’ve always found the fictional idea of “hunting Nazis” after the end of World War II to be confusing. For one thing, you didn’t have to “hunt” very hard to find Nazis, even after the Nazi Party was no more. Former Nazis like Kurt Waldheim rose to positions like the Secretary General of the United Nations, and even within Germany, you could find other ex-Nazis all over the country. (When you think about it, where else would they have gone?) A 2016 study found that by 1957, about 77 percent of justice ministry officials in West Germany were former Nazi party members — ”a higher proportion even than during the 1933 to 1945 Third Reich,” according to the Agence France-Presse.

And the politics of Nazi hunting have not always been so tidy, even though the targets of the hunts were, well, Nazis. For example, the most famous Nazi hunt of all — the Israeli government’s 1960 capture of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, supposedly discovered by famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal — gave way to something strange and uncomfortable: Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. The Israeli government kidnapped and prosecuted Eichmann, defying calls (including from diaspora Jews) for an international tribunal. It was, as well as an opportunity to convict Eichmann for his crimes, a chance for Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to separate what Hannah Arendt identified as “Israeli heroism and Jewish submissive meekness.” Where Jews of the world may let their persecutors go unpunished, the mighty State of Israel would exact stirring vengeance.

In real life, Nazi hunting is an agenda of revenge disturbingly simpatico with Jewish nationalism. Nazi hunters are, as a group, not just fervent Zionists but often sensationally right-wing. A Mossad agent credited with capturing Eichmann in 2018 endorsed the far-right nationalist German political party AfD. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Holocaust and antisemitism watchdog named after Wiesenthal, is these days a hotbed of right-wing ideology; in 2010 it began construction of a “Museum of Tolerance” built on top of a centuries-old Muslim cemetary, and the group’s founding rabbi delivered the invocation at Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017.

This probably most explains the discomfort that I felt watching the new Amazon Studios television show, Hunters, which is produced by Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions and directed by first-time showrunner David Weil, who is best known for some uncredited script work on Bird Box. The show will be available to stream starting this Friday, February 21, on Amazon Prime. (Spoilers follow) Set in the late 1970s, the show follows the journey of 20-year-old Brooklynite Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), who after the murder of his grandmother, is linked up with a kooky assortment of her friends, who all hunt Nazis together.

Their leader and paymaster is Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), a wealthy Auschwitz survivor who has decided that the time has come to exact revenge. Their composition is diverse: black, Asian, old, Jewish, and Catholic, and per the strictures of comic books and heist movies, everybody has something unique to contribute. Heidelbaum, a drug-dealing slacker with a talent for seeing things that others don’t, appears to be just the thing that the group needed to really get their work rolling, should he ever learn to properly throw a punch. His motivations, and those of Offerman, are further rounded out in a series of hoary Holocaust flashbacks mostly set at Auschwitz. A subplot concerns a black female FBI agent (Jerrika Hinton) who is pursuing the “hunters,” who offers predictably tame and intelligent advice about the perils of vigilantism. Of course, she herself is eventually a target of the Nazis, as she is secretly a lesbian. Although it is the 1970s, few people mention the word “Israel,” in spite of the Israeli roots of the Nazi hunting that surely inspired the show.

The hunters’ method of hunting Nazis is a combination of paper-trail detective work and stylized violence. They wear costumes and stalk elderly German men throughout the country, before developing elaborate plots to learn their secrets and then killing them in ritual fashion. There are lots of big knives and silenced pistols, announcements of freshly arrived intelligence from MI6 contacts and corkboards with glossy black-and-white photographs. The first five episodes of the show, which were made available early to critics, depict a Nazi plot to conquer America from within. Using a mixture of secret paramilitary action and the placement of high-ranking Nazi moles (who tend to flawlessly disguise their German accents as Southern), these Nazis plan on erecting a Fourth Reich, although the details remain murky.

From Inglourious Basterds to the recent reboot of the Wolfenstein video game franchise, American media is lousy with depictions of Nazis gratuitously getting their due.

Chess is a favored metaphor of the show. Jonah’s skill at the game is taken as evidence of his buried genius (he checkmates Offerman in two moves), and many intense conversations happen in proximity to the chessboard in the library of Offerman’s Upper East Side townhouse. The title sequence of the show depicts a chess match between the hunters and the Nazis. A convenient symbol of cunning and intelligence without having to show the real thing, the chess imagery belies the true nature of the show. The most honest moment involving chess in the show happens when Jonah simply smashes the pieces off the board. There are no brains here, only brawn.

This is a disappointment and a missed opportunity. From Inglourious Basterds to the recent reboot of the Wolfenstein video game franchise, American media is lousy with depictions of Nazis gratuitously getting their due. Though these projects vary widely in quality (the Nazi zombie flick Overlord was particularly bad, in my opinion), what they share in common is a morality that ends the second that a fist makes contact, and a habit of disguising racial and ethnic representation as solidarity.

This is not offensive so much as it is boring, a cousin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is populated with movies where superheroes and villains commit entire genocides without ever seeming to spill a drop of blood. Not even Thanos is as evil as a Nazi, according to this kind of cinematic logic, as it is the Nazis who get their bones crunched and their guts ripped out. The fact that the people doing this bone crunching and gut ripping are a motley crew are so deliberately cast against type — a musclebound Asian wheelman! a bloodthirsty nun! — is left alone, as if to invite commentary rather than say anything itself. Jonah, as far as we know, is the only character with an inner life, which is concerned with his struggle to become good at killing Nazis. It is not very interesting.

The unique wrath and malevolence of the Nazis themselves is never in doubt, so whatever fuels their conspiratorial power grab is sort of beside the point — once I figured this out, and allowed myself to turn off my brain, watching the show became much easier. In the process, a great deal of stuff is left on the table. New York City in the 1970s was in the throes of financial crisis and attendant social misery, and aside from passing mentions of high levels of crime, the first half of the show does not so much as nod to the racism and racial tension that these conditions produced or how they might affect the group dynamic.

As the brilliant, late Paul Cowan described in the Village Voice, there were more than 200,000 Holocaust survivors living below the poverty line in New York City during that time, ostensibly the social class of Jonah and his grandmother (Jonah sells pot, badly, to help his grandmother pay the bills). These people are, too, rendered invisible. Here, the phrase “blind justice” comes into a different meaning, referring to the narrow field of vision possessed both by the Nazi hunters and Weil’s story of their path of vengeance.

Living by the sword was not how Nazi-hunting worked, and revising the history to include more violence makes for entertaining but fundamentally brainless television. The real heroes were the activists and bureaucrats who understood the more quotidian or banal nature of the problem, as Arendt might put it. In real life, Nazi hunters were not perfect instruments of morality themselves, reflective of a circumstance more complicated than a show like Hunters has the capacity to portray. Simon Wiesenthal, the obvious inspiration for Pacino's Offerman, was revealed after his death to have been on the payroll of the Mossad at the time he discovered Eichmann in Argentina. He also opposed Eichmann's execution, and in the 1980s he defended Kurt Waldheim in spite of the clear evidence of Waldheim's Nazi affiliations.

It is perfectly acceptable for historical fiction to fully abandon thematic accuracy — precision is a better standard, anyway, because what really matters is if the fictive world described can stand on its own terms. But Hunters fails on those terms. It’s a bang-bang show that attempts to balance Big Short-style explanations of what really happened after the war with the cheap thrill of airholing Nazis, zooming in real close on the blood spatters. The show’s insistence on resolving these problems with more vengeance reveals an inability to confront a challenge for which Hunters is not equipped: What do you do about Nazis when you can’t punch them?

Noah Kulwin is the Future Editor of The Outline.