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Amazon’s Hunters, starring Al Pacino, is an exploitative Holocaust vengeance fantasy

Amazon’s new series tries to be a tale of Jewish identity — but it doubles as torture porn for neo-Nazis.

The diverse group of informal spies in Amazon’s new series Hunters.
The diverse group of informal spies in Amazon’s new series Hunters.
Amazon Studios

Near the end of “In the Belly of the Whale,” the first episode of Amazon’s surreal new series Hunters, a Nazi in a Washington, DC-based laundromat ominously tells the black woman doing laundry next to him that “when you don’t separate the whites from the colors, the colors always bleed.” It’s the kind of heavy-handed, weakly written, cringe-inducing moment that recurs throughout this uncomfortable new vengeance fantasy, which focuses on a covert society of Nazi hunters.

Executive produced by Jordan Peele, Hunters is a conundrum. Though its heavily stylized ’70s aesthetic places it squarely within the mode of “Jewsploitation” popularized by similar stories of semi-satirical Jewish revenge (like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), it takes its storyline too seriously to be effective as a pastiche. Instead, in its eagerness to depict its subject through the pivoting lenses of gleeful satire and high melodrama, Hunters usually shifts into empty provocation.

Hunters’ creator, TV newcomer David Weil, based Hunters in part upon his grandparents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors. That seems like a set-up for powerful storytelling. But as I watched Hunters, I worried that the show might be far more effective at titillating and arousing Nazi sympathizers than it is at speaking to the Jewish community.

For all of its emphasis on Jewish traditions, rites, storytelling, and myth-making, Hunters gives its villains ample room to argue their points. Each and every Nazi character is a buffoon, a variant of the evil speech-making Nazis of Marathon Man or Schindler’s List. But there are only so many times a show can cut to those caricatures and let them verbalize their warped ideologies, anti-Semitic slurs, and digs about Jewish people and ovens before it’s completely undermined its point — if the show ever really had one.

Hunters starts out distorting our sense of reality

Hunters tests the viewers’ sense of reality from its opening scene, when we learn — in a deeply disturbing moment — that the US secretary of state is, in fact, a high-level Nazi, the former “butcher” of a concentration camp. This discovery prompts a situation so far removed from any historically accurate depiction of Nazis after the war — Nazis who most certainly came to America but who lived lives of “anonymity and no scrutiny” — that it’s completely impossible to take seriously.

Yet Hunters presents it straightforwardly, as the start of the strange dance between gravitas and absurdity that the show performs for the rest of the season.

Hunters deliberately channels the grand, mythic spirit of Golden Age comic books. Legendary comic creators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Joe Simon, all children of immigrant Jewish families, created many of comics’ most larger-than-life superheroes to fight larger-than-life battles. Hunters’ main character Jonah (Logan Lerman, somehow playing a 19-year-old a decade after he was a teen Greek god in Percy Jackson) has no superpowers, but he slots right into place among these heroes as a Jewish Peter Parker-type. His quest to find answers for the mysterious murder of his grandmother leads him to discover a shocking secret: His grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was part of a network of vigilante spies that tracked down and punished Nazis who infiltrated post-War Western society.

The ringleader of the spies is “Meyer,” played by the quintessentially Italian Al Pacino doing a muddled Yiddish accent. Meyer takes a grandfatherly interest in Jonah as he lures him into the spy ring. The introduction of the spies, most of whom are self-taught and unextraordinary, moves us into the realm of pastiche and comedy. In one fourth wall-smashing montage, they’re lavishly introduced to us like action heroes. (For instance, a pair of Holocaust survivors — Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek, masters who manage to work wonders with this show’s bland writing — is described as “a couple of Chabad-asses.”)

The spies’ work, however, is deadly serious: They’re trying to sniff out and punish Nazis who’ve assimilated into American society after the war, as they attempt to slowly build power and start “the fourth Reich.”

It’s all very S.H.I.E.L.D. versus Hydra. But within this hyperbolic, cartoonish backdrop, the show also layers in an atonally weighty mythology of Holocaust survival — and if you’re unsure whether these are things that play well against each other, you’re not alone. Hunters’ casual ultraviolence, its far-fetched spy shenanigans, and its rambling villain speeches get paired with Holocaust flashbacks and contemporaneous genocide, and the tonal whiplash perpetually undercuts an already weak plot.

Of course, in an age where right-wing extremism is on the rise, where Nazis get profiles in the New York Times, maybe Hunters is the heavily ironic Nazi show we deserve. Against such a backdrop, is it even possible to have a depiction of ethnic conflict that’s too cartoonish?

Maybe. And I’d love to make that argument about a better show. But Weil and his co-showrunner, veteran writer-producer Nikki Toscano (Revenge), haven’t made it easy for me.

Hunters vacillates ineffectively between a stylized vengeance fever dream and a plodding, empty mystery

In many ways, what Hunters is trying to do is ambitious. Its characters frequently break the fourth wall; its narrative style often abruptly shifts tone; it mixes all kinds of cinematic languages, hovering somewhere between Jojo Rabbit, Jackie Brown, the mid-2000s cult British comedy series Blackpool, and the 2010s spy show Leverage. None of these things are remotely alike, and trying to find a through line between them is impossible. The tonal shift from episode to episode, and often from scene to scene, is infuriating; Hunters tries to be a Kavalier & Clay-esque fantasia on Jewish-American life, a comedic spy romp, and a very serious Kaddish for the Holocaust all at once. It doesn’t work.

Maybe it could work, if it were cleverer. Hunters’ scenes of implausible revenge seem teleported in from an unbelievable fever dream of over-the-top Nazi sadism and Jewish heroics — and thanks to the overly saturated color palette, they often look that way, too. The touch of surrealism could be an interesting starting point for a story that complicates its own elements of wish fulfillment with a more self-aware look at the difficulty of unraveling personal vendettas from systemic abuse. That’s particularly possible in the case of real-life Nazis after the war, who often evaded justice and whose prosecution often created more mystery than answers.

Instead, the show vacillates wildly between tongue-in-cheek comedy and straightforward, dull drama. For as slowly as Hunters moves its much-vaunted chess pieces around, we learn very little about who they are to each other or themselves. Characterizations don’t so much develop as abruptly appear — like when mild-mannered weakling Jonah suddenly morphs into a code-reading, intel-gathering, stone-cold badass prodigy before our eyes or when characters start having moving heart-to-hearts that aren’t moving at all because we’ve barely even met them. (Only Jerrika Hinton, who plays the show’s quiet FBI detective Millie Morris, deserves a nod here for adding a thoughtful watchfulness to her character that makes her the sole textured presence in a show full of penciled-in tropes.)

Weil’s writing throughout is cloying and bland — consider lines like, “Batman? Right now I’m Fatman,” and, “You think he’s Shylock Holmes, Jew Detective?” Now consider five episodes’ worth of them. So much emphasis is given to lofty speech-making about Jewish identity, coming from both Jewish characters and Nazi characters, that the plot often feels less like a storyline and more like a setup for dueling sermons. And when one of those sermons is coming from a cohort that wishes to systemically annihilate the other cohort, patience for sitting through the lecture grows very thin, especially when the larger point gets frequently lost in a wash of violence.

Throughout the five episodes of Hunters made available for review, there are depictions of concentration camp stories that seem designed to mythologize cultural survival and resistance. They become some of the show’s more frustrating parts because there’s a strong element of torture porn involved in the framing of these scenes; they’re deeply melodramatic and unforgiving in their displays of sadism, violence, and dehumanization. More than any other aspect of the show, they toe the line between disquieting violence and lurid entertainment.

Stories that accurately reflect the horror of life under the Nazi regime or more vital than ever. But in a real-world context where extremist anti-Semitic acts are on the rise, stories that sensationalize historical violence against Jewish people rather than emphasize the human dignity and strength of those who survived it — as I felt several of Hunters’ concentration camp scenes did — can arguably send the wrong message to the wrong audience. The repeated attention given to speeches in which Nazis literally dehumanize Jewish people by philosophically framing them as dogs, pigs, and meat doesn’t help either. I understand that real Nazis actually do this, but why air their side of the story? It’s hard not to fear that these details, as Hunters presents them, spread the Nazi ideology more than they edify and elucidate Jewish people and their allies.

It’s certainly possible to portray the appalling and horrific nature of Nazi violence without sensationalism; Roman Polanski’s The Pianist instantly springs to mind. And it’s also worth being clear that my critical instincts here war with my knowledge that others might view these scenes much differently. I am not Jewish. Others might have a dramatically different response. But these are questions we’ve been asking about depictions of white supremacist propaganda for a while now. In 2016, for example, Vox TV critic Emily VanDerWerff called Amazon’s previous attempt at doing Nazis, Man in the High Castle, “deeply irresponsible television” for very similar reasons. That show, VanDerWerff argued, had “devolved into plot-heavy Nazi kitsch.” Four years later, Hunters starts out fully embracing the kitsch.

In the end, exhausted and aggrieved, I simply gave up trying to figure out who stood to derive the most edification from Hunters. I realized I’d reached my limit halfway through episode five after yet another mention of “ovens” by gleeful Nazis. The show’s far-fetched conceit that Nazis were behind most of the conspiratorial diplomatic tragedies of the Cold War era, the thin mystery of the characters’ relationships, and the wan pull of their wacky spy hijinks weren’t enough to justify the ideological Nazi parade on display.

The 10-episode first season of Hunters is now streaming on Amazon Prime.