etflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO, STARZ… there are so many choices, so many options, when you’re looking for something to watch during the current stay-at-home hiatus.
The recent made-for-television Amazon Prime series “Hunters,” about a crew of ragtag Nazi hunters in 1970s America has generated much discussion. Most reviews — notably from survivor groups — have been negative, but the the negative press from the more mainstream media, opposing the notion of vigilante justice, is more interesting.
I can understand opposition to the series on the grounds that it trivializes the Shoah. I do not, however, feel that this is the case. I respect survivors who may oppose this series, but I suspect that the opposition is more institutional. If its premise is given credence, although it is completely fictional, that may hamper fundraising efforts.
I find it to be very interesting, however, that reviewers in the general media have panned the series.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “Amazon’s 1970s-set drama starring Al Pacino is less a straightforward chronicle of Nazi-hunting and more a flashy slice of Jewsploitation. … This is a ballsy, unnerving, entertaining, overreaching show, one likely to provoke and annoy in equal measure. It may require an almost Talmudic level of study to determine if ‘Hunters’ is good or bad for the Jews…” According to the Guardian: “It felt like exploitation — maybe fetishisation — and part of a cloud of doubt that settles over the whole.” Variety tells us: “‘Hunters’ is above all else an exercise in genre pastiche, blending ultraviolence with brutally unfunny comedy. … with C-minus jokes and storytelling that inelegantly toggles between gravity and deeply self-conscious oddity, demands credit simply for trying, and not trying hard enough.” And the New York Times weighs in: “It never quite gets the blend of dramatic intensity, comic-book embroidery and cathartic action that it seems to be going for. ‘Hunters,’ like the hunters team itself, is less than the sum of its parts.”
There are biblically sanctioned episodes of vigilantism, and there were extra-legal corporal and even capital punishments that Jewish courts administered in the middle ages. There is also a rich tradition in American cinema of heroes who exacted revenge when the legal system would or could not. “Death Wish,” “Dirty Harry,” “Taxi Driver,” “Walking Tall,” “Death Sentence,” “Law Abiding Citizen,” and “Rambo: Last Blood” are but a few examples. Wikipedia lists 167 feature films from 1938 to 2020 under the rubric Vigilante Film.
But this film generates such animus, while the others do not. No one really likes Nazis. So why does the empowerment of a bunch of Jews make people so uncomfortable
Created in New York by Jewish immigrants, the first comic book superheroes were mythic saviors who fought the Nazi threat. Superhero comics’ earliest rise to prominence occurred at the height of World War II, so it’s no surprise that the Nazi party became fodder for all sorts of spandex-clad superheroes. Fiorello La Guardia famously defended Captain America’s creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, from Nazi sympathizers, and superheroes’ fight against the evils of Nazism is a long story, one that’s still going on today.
In Gotham Knights #32 (2002), Robin, the Teen Wonder, is fighting off Neo-Nazis who have defaced and attacked a Jewish temple. In one page, he easily takes down the rabble. He leaves them on the ground for the police, but not before spraying the word “Losers” all over them.
“Hunters” is fiction with enough true history woven in to make it believable. It is true that neo-Nazis and former Nazis live among us. It is also true that often they are beyond the reach of the legal system. It is true that neo-Nazis have formed groups and organizations to (so far unsuccessfully) overthrow our form of government. It is true that much of what was plundered from Jews by the Nazis has still not been returned. It is also true that the US government covertly recruited around 1,600 German scientists, engineers and technicians — including many former Nazis — to give the U.S. an edge over the Soviets in the cold war and the space race. And it is also true that the real Nazi hunters do not execute those they find. Instead, they turn over to the authorities, who may or may not execute them or deport them after a trial.
The series’ take on Jewish vengeance is escapist and cathartic. It rolls together comic books, caper films, New York in the ’70s — and the Holocaust. The protagonist, Jonah, is part Peter Parker, an incipient hero who doesn’t have superpowers, but he’s a whiz at cracking codes.
My mother’s extended family died in Auschwitz. She never ever spoke about the Shoah. During the Eichmann, trial I kept a scrapbook of all the newspaper clippings I could find. When, watching on our small black and white television, she saw Eichmann in the booth, my mother said: “I wish I could scratch his eyes out.” That was the only time she spoke about it.
There may be survivors who forgive the Nazis for what they did to Jews. There also are others who, if they were given the opportunity, may not be so forgiving.
The debate about ends versus means and the righteousness of vigilante murder, even when the victims are former Nazis who have brought their schemes for world domination to the United States, seems a bit much. It’s entertainment. Granted that some films and television series may have an impact on contemporary issues, “Hunters” reflects a human desire to seek revenge for an unspeakable wrong. It should be viewed as such.