The great thing about fictional Nazis is you can do whatever you like with them. Melt them (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”). Incinerate them (“Inglourious Basterds”). Have their leader thrown out of a window by a 10-year-old kid (“Jojo Rabbit”). Make them cackling, one-note monsters (pick a war film, any war film). Your choice. Other villains come and go depending on cultural trends, but Nazis are forever.
Of course, just because we have these go-to demons doesn’t mean they always make for great entertainment – as proven by the new Amazon series “Hunters,” which could be the biggest mess this year outside of an Iowa caucus.
Sure, it seems apt that after hiding out in the Amazon region for all those years, Nazis are making a return to our screens on the Amazon website. And, yes, “Hunters” makes its wisest decision by setting its action in the New York of 1977 – a time when, if we can believe Hollywood, Americans were interested in only three things: disco-dancing, talking on citizens band radio, and foiling Nazi plots to take over the world.
Yet every time I was just starting to warm to this high-profile thriller over its 10 episodes, it would do something incredibly dumb to make me dislike it all over again. Its cause is most definitely not helped by an opening 90-minute episode that is far and away the worst of the entire season.
The tone is set with an opening scene that is horribly hackneyed – a Holocaust survivor recognizes a Nazi war criminal at a barbecue in sunny Maryland – and more over the top than an Al Pacino accent. Throw in so much ultraviolence that even Anthony Burgess might consider it a tad excessive and the show’s style is firmly established: “Tarantino-trite.”
I lost count at the number of lines that probably looked great on paper but sounded hopelessly contrived on screen. Just two examples: “In a world of diarrhea and constipation, it’s OK to be a normal piece of shit sometimes”; and “You Jews. You think you know how to kill because for eons you’ve been massacred. But you don’t see the cows running slaughterhouses, do you?”
Things do pick up a little as the script eases up on the wannabe whip-smart one-liners and exhausting pop culture references (we are told one Nazi standing next to Hitler in an old photo “looks as excited as a white girl at an Engelbert Humperdinck concert,” while a fake TV game show – there are quite a few of them in “Hunters” – talks of someone being “braver than a stewardess on a Palestinian-hijacked 747”).
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That improvement coincides with us spending more time with the motley vigilante crew led by Pacino’s Meyer Offerman, pursuing the “hundreds” of Nazis who have made new homes in the United States and meting out a permanent form of punishment.
One thing that is definitely in the show’s favor is that it was created by David Weil, the American grandson of a Holocaust survivor, and I admire his chutzpah in telling this story.
It’s just a shame that he’s given us such a mélange of clichés about Nazis and the Shoah, drawing more on comic books than history ones. Indeed, his love of comic books is apparent throughout – whether that is characters riffing on the particular merits of Batman’s sidekick, Robin, or when someone is advised: “You should read the Torah more – it’s the original comic book.”
Too often, “Hunters” feels like the piece of juvenilia a young Jewish boy might write after first hearing about the horrors of the death camps, seeking fictitious vengeance through a Jewish superhero or heroes.
I’m not sure the problem is aided by the presence of executive producer Jordan Peele, who never met a 1970s film he didn’t want to pay homage to – most clearly in his 2017 debut feature “Get Out” and its debt to “The Stepford Wives.” I assume that is why “Hunters” often feels like a combination of “The Boys from Brazil” (which, like “Stepford Wives,” was based on an Ira Levin novel), “The A-Team” and a hybrid blaxploitation/Jewsploitation action movie.
And if that weren’t enough, we also have numerous death camp “flashbacks” that come dangerously close, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, to showing us the evil of banality.
I first got a sense of unease about the show last November when co-showrunner Nikki Toscano explained to Entertainment Weekly that “Hunters” would accentuate the funny and be very violent. Not necessarily things I would want from a story about Nazis and the Holocaust.
Indeed, given the presence of Pacino in the lead role, I was fully expecting “Hunters” to provide the biggest hoo-ha of his career – which is really saying something when it comes to the star of “Scent of a Woman.” Yet the film’s playful approach to such dark material (like when a white supremacist slices up a body with a chainsaw while crooning “Tonight” from “West Side Story” – he does know this was written by a Jewish guy, right?) seems to have attracted surprisingly little attention.
Personally, I was more concerned about why “Hunters” felt the need to play fast-and-loose with its depictions of the Holocaust. Deadly human chess matches and lethal singing competitions at extermination camps? Really? When there are so many actual horror stories to pick from, why create myths and do the Holocaust deniers’ jobs for them? (I am open to being corrected if a “Harry Potter”-esque chess match involving Jewish inmates really did take place during the Holocaust.)
And while I wasn’t expecting or looking for “Hunters” to present its Nazis as fully rounded characters – how much character can you establish when you have to say lines like “We will purge this country of the filth that inhabits it with a Fourth Reich”? – these are a particularly one-dimensional bunch. Dylan Baker gets dealt a particularly bad hand as a Nazi firmly entrenched in the U.S. government, and all I can say about the character of “the Colonel” is that it seems a long way from “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
Yet for all of my problems with “Hunters” – and trust me, I had more reservations than the Navajo and Sioux combined – there was also part of me that applauded the show for bringing the issues of white supremacism and anti-Semitism into people’s living rooms.
It never does so subtly, as exemplified by another spoof TV game show segment that asks contestants for answers to the question “Why Does Everyone Hate the Jews?” Or when a white supremacist leads a chorus of “Jews will not replace us,” echoing the Charlottesville march of August 2017.
But we are not living in subtle times, and I’d call that approach fair enough in this age of rising anti-Semitic attacks.
A caption declares at one point “Yep. That shit really happened,” when a recreation is staged of the alleged U.S. government argument for bringing Nazi scientists into America after World War II. And if just one person, curiosity piqued, googles “Operation Paperclip,” Wernher von Braun or Simon Wiesenthal after watching “Hunters,” the show will have achieved something. It might even prove a boon for Torah and Talmud sales.
As I said, although “Hunters” improves as Meyer’s ragtag group move center stage (I particularly liked Holocaust-surviving couple Murray and Mindy, and a British nun called Sister Harriet, but was totally immune to the charms of Logan Lerman as the youngster recruited into the group), it totally loses the plot in the final episode, setting up what looks like an even more preposterous potential second season. If it does indeed return, I’m sure I won’t be the only person to say “Never again.”