Hunters – Amazon’s fictional Jewish Nazi-hunters

60 years ago this week, on 11th May 1960, Adolph Eichmann was captured by Mossad Agents and taken from Argentina to Israel to stand trial for crimes against humanity. In today’s blog, I take a brief respite from commenting on digital commemorations and virtual museums – more to come on these topics soon – to consider the controversy about Amazon’s new series Hunters, a fictional TV series about Nazi hunters.

Hunters, for those who haven’t seen it is the fictional tale about teenager Jonah, who gets drawn into a group of Nazi-hunters in 1970s America after his grandmother is brutally murdered. Most episodes contain ‘flashbacks’ to some of the group’s older members’ experiences in Auschwitz and at least the first few episodes have a comic-book Tarantino-esque vibe, however this is mostly dropped by the third programme. The series certainly knows its Holocaust fiction with an obvious nod to Boys from Brazil, amongst other re-presentational and symbolic qualities that clearly distinguish it as postmodern fiction not a docu-drama. The series did, however, attract some controversy. 

The Controversy

So why is it controversial? The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum released a statement condemning the film’s use of fictional hyperviolent scenes of the Holocaust. In particular they reflected on a murderous chess game in which an SS guard forces victims to play the role of chess pieces, who have to stab anyone whose square into which they are ordered to move. This scene is presented as a ‘flashback’ in the first episode (although SPOILER ALERT as we later discover it is a fabricated flashback of a character who is not who they say they are). Whether those commenting on the series had seen the entire season or not is unclear from the critique and whether they might retract their criticism that this is fictional when the character is pretending to be someone they are not and thus would mostly be making up memories remains unclear.

The Museum released this statement on Twitter: 

Auschwitz was full of horrible pain & suffering documented in the accounts of survivors. Inventing a fake game of human chess for @huntersonprime is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature. It also welcomes future deniers. We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy.

— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) February 23, 2020

Series creator and executive producer David Weil defended his story thus:

  • He felt changed after visiting Auschwitz where his grandmother had been imprisoned
  • He felt compelled by the promise ‘Never Again’ that he had a responsibility as a grandchild of a survivor to continue the memory
  • He did not want to misrepresent a reality that was not his, and was a traumatic time for the real people that suffered so he purposefully fictionalised events 

From the above, we can see an example of what Marianne Hirsch has called postmemory: Weil, as a descendant of a survivor, can only imagine this past in creative ways for himself. He cannot ‘relive it’ as if it is his own trauma, yet he feels deeply connected to this past and overwhelmingly responsible for continuing its memory.

It seems that Weil went out of his way to research the history of the event in order to avoid accidently (mis)representing someone or something real – for example, he started the tattooed numbers higher than those ever used in the camp so that no character could be mistaken for a real victim. 

One of the criticisms of the plethora of Holocaust films and programmes has been the lack of focus on Jewish resistance and the reiteration of the mythic image of Jewish victims as going to the gas chambers as ‘sheep to the slaughter’. There were many cases of Jewish resistance, perhaps most famously the revolt at Sobibor death camp and the Warsaw ghetto uprising, as well as Jewish partisans groups. Yet, in recent years, whilst fictional (and often still inaccurate) representations of Jewish victims gain critical acclaim, attempts to focus on fictional Jewish characters as strong fighters have received substantial backlash (another notable example is Inglorious Basterds). A Sonderkommando revolt mod of the popular computer game series Wolfenstein received such heavily criticism it was retracted by the creators (as Wulf Kansteiner has noted).

Hunters chess
The ‘chess scene’ in Hunters. Reprinted here under Fair Use terms.

Not all reviews were negative, this one in the British newspaper The Guardian suggests that the series offers catharsis for young Jewish audiences as an ’empowering revenge fantasy’.  Indeed, other, less fictional engagements with the past created by descendants of Holocaust survivors also draw on images of fantastic resistance against Nazis, such as the short animation I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors. Here, animator Ann Marie Fleming translates to screen the illustrated memoir by Bernice Eisenstein, who imagines her father’s yellow star representing a sheriff’s badge in an image of strength and power rather than victimhood.


Memory Ethics and the Third Generation

Several years ago, I wrote an article about Lego Holocaust films on YouTube. I reflected on historical debates about the ethics of Holocaust representation, much of which was written by survivors including Elie Wiesel, Terence Des Pres and Saul Friedlander. I conclude that as we move into an era in which the dominant mode of Holocaust memory is mediated memory and will be led by a generation far-distant from the events themselves, perhaps we might need to reconfigure the ethical expectations of representations. For if we condemn younger generations for the ways in which they engage with this past in their own terms then we risk isolating them altogether and memory of the Holocaust might fade far more rapidly than we hope. Thus, I argued, that we need to closely watch how these younger generations are not only engaging with, but representing the Holocaust for themselves. Such study will help us to create transgenerational memory. Perhaps we can also apply this logic to Hunters.

Created by a third-generation survivor and with Jordan Peele noted as executive producer, well-known for his interrogations of racial politics in contemporary USA on film, one can I think assume that there was no intention to make Hunters into a controversial and problematic representation of the Holocaust.

As Holocaust memory and representation falls increasingly to the responsibility of individuals three or more generations distant from the actual lived events of this past, we confront a movement not only from ‘lived’ to ‘mediated’ memory, but from ‘personal’ to ‘collective’. Most importantly, as Georges Didi-Huberman has argued, imagination is crucial for those who did not experience the Holocaust to ‘remember it’ for themselves – it is only through imagining it in their own terms that these later generations can take on the responsibility to continue Holocaust memory into the future in ways that matter to them. 

One of the important elements the series highlights is the ever-growing link between Nazi ideology and terrorism today. This is one prism through which contemporary relevance of the Holocaust particularly resonates for younger generations. Nazism of 1930s and 1940s Germany may be a thing of the past, yet Nazism and Nazis are not dead. Individuals who performed duties as employees or members of the NDSAP still stand trial and neo-Nazism is increasingly finding popularity on online fora, such as 8Chan where manifestos containing references to historical as well as more contemporary Nazi ideologies and figures are shared by individuals who go on to commit mass murders. The entwining of these two themes in Hunters highlights the urgency with which we should all be looking at Nazism: it is not just a matter for history books and museums. Despite being set in the 1970s, the backdrop of the civil rights movement ever-present in Hunters draws obvious parallels to Trump’s America. The programme’s Tarantino-esque qualities also highlight that the over-emphasised 1970s aesthetic is just style rather than substance – the series’ issues are timeless rather than time-specific.

Fictional programming like Hunters of course should never replace the important educational, informational, historical and cultural work of museums, archives and other memory organisations. Nevertheless, they represent one way in which generations distanced from this past are trying to understand and remember it for themselves. As such, they remain important and worthy objects of study for those of us thinking about the future of Holocaust memory.

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