So yeah, we have to talk about Hunters.
Like a lot of people, I was excited for Amazon’s slickly gritty revenge-horror-fever-dream. Like a lot of people, I’m always down for a period piece, and I trusted the pedigree of the series, which boasts Jordan Peele as a producer and stars Al Pacino as the Judeo-mafioso of WASP America’s dreams.
And like a lot of people, I love to watch Jews and people of color killing the fuck out of Nazis.
Ah, before I continue: I should say that my impressions of Hunters as it exists as an actualized product are incomplete. I watched the first episode, gulping down my own nausea at the gleeful, creative slaughter of Jews, assuming that I must be too sensitive to Holocaust imagery to appreciate Hunters‘ twisted commentary.
The fault must be mine, too, I thought, that I paused halfway through the second installment. Guiltily, I left the frame frozen on my screen for days, hoping to conquer my aversion and appreciate this story, this art that was — I had been tacitly promised — made for me, an American Jew, to enjoy.
Well, I flunked. At some point, I closed the taunting little window, and I have no plans to open it again.
One and a half episodes of Hunters is will have to be enough to sustain the following commentary. I can’t opine on later twists in the story, or potential redemptive decisions made by the show runners. If my impressions are mistaken, I can only apologize for being scared away too early.
Still, one and a half episodes of Hunters provides a surprisingly rich palette of objections.
For one thing, the show swings hard at portraying American Jewish life, but whiffs bafflingly often — on small details, yes, but ones that are especially glaring in the context of what is meant to be a story centering on Jews. A few examples, and I hope you will pardon the seeming minutia.
Logan Lerman’s Jonah calls his grandmother “Safta” (the Hebrew term for Grandma) instead of using the Yiddish “Bubbe,” a much more likely dubbing for a woman from Europe in the 1970s. At her funeral, Jonah is questioned for sitting shiva as an official mourner (a role usually reserved for children and spouses) though it is not unusual for other family members to sit shiva in cases where no immediate family survives — as would be tragically common among Holocaust survivors.
One woman leaves the funeral and tells Jonah “Thank God!” in Hebrew, a fantastically bizarre piece of dialogue that can only be explained by someone on staff knowing the words without having any idea of their meaning or proper usage… or bothering to use Google.
But these are pedestrian flaws. Hunters is not unique in stumbling frequently in an attempt to march to an authentic rhythm of American Jewish life. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt genuinely represented in American media, and most of those come with some form of caveat.
Like a lot of people, the real problem I have with Hunters rests in its depiction of the Holocaust. (When I say “a lot of people,” I do mean a lot of people — the Auschwitz Memorial has officially criticized Hunters for its creative choices; I am just one voice in a particularly peeved chorus.)
Hunters approaches the Holocaust — in particular, the actions of Nazi criminals and the conditions in concentration camps — like source material, rather than historical record. The show is ludicrously, agonizingly inventive, coming up with violent, sadistic, and appallingly creative ways to torture and murder Jews.
I guess, for some reason, they thought it wasn’t bad enough the first time.
Even if you haven’t seen the show, you may have heard of the already-infamous chess scene, in which camp inmates are forced to slaughter each other in a human mockery of pawns and pieces. There’s also the sadist Nazi who assassinates any Jewish singer who hits a wrong key or tempo in his forced choir, as well as the band summarily shot by a shrieking SS guard for changing their tune from pompous Wagner to Hava Nagila.
(Would they really have been playing Hava Nagila in 1944? Maybe, maybe not. I’m too exhausted by the piles of corpses to investigate.)
The entire effect is profoundly writerly, artistic in a nauseatingly deliberate way. Was the original Holocaust somehow insufficiently violent, evil, sadistic, and gruesome for Hunters to portray? Were the gas chambers insufficiently impressive in their original iteration, and did the concept really need to be amplified into a nasty revenge killing?
Was ordinary slaughter just not sexy enough?
My stomach churns to think of that writers’ room, presumably full of intelligent, well-intentioned people, gathered around a table to “punch up” the the Holocaust.
Historical storytelling is always a fraught proposition. The translation of atrocities is particularly delicate, as the demands to reality and art rarely harmonize as neatly as storytellers would like.
The Holocaust, in all of its sprawling, fragmented, fathomless horror, is familiar ground for this debate. In a way, I can understand Hunters’ desire to exaggerate and exploit, to raise the volume on what we know to a keening creative pitch. The instinct to hyper-realize isn’t necessarily misguided; after all, the point of art is often to reveal truth through a lens of fictionalization.
And certainly, over-dramatization can be effective. Some viewers, including Jewish viewers, have found catharsis and relief in experiencing Hunters’ sparklingly filthy interpretation of history. That is valid. Art is subjective to begin with; art that deals with subjects of trauma is correspondingly more divisive.
I find no fault in viewers for whom the excesses of the series are comforting, who find the contrast of violence and survival empowering.
For me, though, whether because Hunters goes too far in its inventiveness or not far enough, the final product feels disturbingly… wishy. It certainly is that in regard to its Nazi-hunting segments, but it doesn’t feel much less so in its portrayal of the crimes that inspired that revenge.
I am sure that the show’s creators had no conscious intention of “improving” on the Holocaust, but they are so deeply committed to their vision that the impression is hard to shake.
Maybe I’m too sensitive. Maybe I’m just sick of seeing sullen, slaughtered Jews. Maybe it’s me.
But maybe even the most transgressive artists should calibrate their ratio of spectacle to historical substance more carefully. Art may be a game of chess; the Holocaust, and history, is not.