237: Hunters. Season 1

Archival Spaces 237

Hunters. Season 1 (2020, Amazon Prime)

Uploaded 28 February 2020

I have to say that I was put off by the first episode of Hunters, Amazon Prime’s new television series, because the opening in which Under-Secretary Biff Simpson (a member of Jimmy Carter’s cabinet, we later learn) murders his whole family, some neighbors, and guests at poolside, because one of the guests recognizes him as a former Nazi war criminal, seemed too cartoonish, given the subject of the series is a Simon Wiesenthal hunt for Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust. My European parents, one of them a non-Jewish concentration camp survivor, never allowed me to read comic books as a child, and I never have since, although I have watched a couple of recent comic book movies. I did read Art Spiegelmann’s brilliant graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus, ironically opening in 1978, one year after the Hunters’ story takes place, which is why I gave the show a second chance, binge watching season 1 in two days.  I also remembered that mixing comedy and the Holocaust, i.e. popular culture and the most horrific event in the 20th century, has often brought down the wrath of high brow critics, as Lubitsch experienced when he made To Be a or Not to Be (1942), now considered an absolute classic, or, more recently was the fate of Jo Jo Rabbit (2019, Taika Waititi).  

Hunters is indeed consciously structured like a comic book with numerous references to Batman, and the hunters themselves being an Avengers type crew, while also being a post-modern mash-up of tv commercials, game shows, movie genres, animation, popular songs, stereotypes, over-the-top violence, melodrama, outright sentimentality,  garish color, and purely metaphoric images. But it also visualizes for present day audiences – at a time when not more than a handful of victims and perpetrators are among us – the actual history of the Holocaust, including the “selection” process on the ramp at Auschwitz, life in concentration camp barracks, the KZ orchestras, the extreme cruelty of the SS (the human chess game is, however, a complete fabrication), the medical experiments, the Kindertransports, the cooperation of Swiss banks in hiding Nazi pillaged Jewish wealth, and maybe most importantly, the complicity of the American government in “rescuing” over 1,600 Nazi criminals after World War II (code-named Operation Paperclip), so they could participate in our country’s atomic/chemical weapons and space exploration programs, giving us a leg up on the evil Communists in Russia. Finally, the film consistently addresses deeply moral dilemmas about whether vigilantism is justified for a righteous cause in a seemingly corrupt world, without providing easy or pat answers, in particular through its central protagonist, Jonah Heidelbaum, who is likened to Batman and works in a comic book store.

Logan Lerman (Jonah Heidelbaum), Al Pacino (Meyer Offerman)

“The boy,” as the other hunters call him, is barely out of his teens, when he witnesses the murder in his house of his grandmother, Ruth, herself a Holocaust survivor and his only living relative. Through a series of clues among his “Safta’s” things he finds Heinz Richter, a Nazi war criminal running a Manhattan toy shop and attempts to kill him, but fails, and must be rescued by Meyer Offerman, the leader of the hunters and a survivor. Like his Old Testament namesake, Jonah fails this and subsequent tests throughout the narrative, when he is asked to kill Nazis, often accompanied by Ruth’s ghost who warns him that he will become like them if he does so. In the Bible, Jonah is sent to the utterly wicked city of Nineveh by God to announce their destruction, if they do not repent, but Jonah flees, only to be swallowed by a whale, where he realizes his duty and travels to the city to reveal the difference between good and evil. Not surprisingly, each episode of Hunters is described on the Amazon website in quasi-biblical language: “And on the second day, God created The Hunters, who at the behest of Meyer brought Jonah into their tribe….”  In Hunters, though, Nineveh is the symbol not only of the whole community of Americanized Nazi war criminals but also of the present day the United States itself, which under Trumpism has revealed its previously sometimes hidden racist heart.

Nazi War Criminals as loyal Americans

In a black and white television skit, a very young black girl and Lonny Flash, an unemployed actor and one of the hunters, ask the question: How do you recognize a Nazi? Yolanda answers 1) By the raised arm salute; 2) white people; 3) white people; 4) white people. Lonny corrects her and says that all white people are not Nazis, but she insists that all Nazis are white people. And indeed, the Nazis, whether German war criminals or their young American followers are white people who inhabit a world of “America First,” Confederate flag-draped Fourth of July barbecues, alt-right meetings, right-wing Republican fundraisers, Aryan Nations-dominated prisons, trans-national corporate capitalism or segments of the  American government. Time and again the Nazis respond, “But we are Americans just like you.” When a Jewish couple is separated from their child on the ramp at Auschwitz, we cannot help but think of INS’s immigration policies on our Southern border. The central plot revealed in the latter half of the season involves the genocide of America’s brown people by feeding them a sugar substitute, just as some African-American critics have long contended that white America flooded the ghetto with drugs in another attempted genocide      

Jerrika Hinton as FBI Agent Millie Morris

Thus, the most striking aspect of Hunters may be that this Holocaust story is chocked full of African-American characters, and not just because Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers. Two of Jonah’s three best neighborhood friends are black – he is sweet on the young woman.  Also an African-American is the female FBI detective, Millie Morris, who is on the trail of both the hunters and the Nazis, but has trouble admitting her sexual preference to her deeply religious family. Several other black Americans become victims of American Nazis. And finally, the hunters themselves are an inter-racial group, including a young black woman with an Angela Davis Afro, an Asian-American Vietnam war vet with PST, a middle-aged Catholic nun, another elderly couple who survived Auschwitz, as well as the aforementioned Jewish actor and group leader. In fact, in their color-blind racial harmony, the hunters represent an inter-racial utopia that also finds expression in a joyous dance sequence on Coney Island to a Bee Gees tune from Saturday Night Fever, and in the general image of New York.

Saul Rubinek (Murray Markowitz), Kate Mulvaney (Sister Harriet), Louis Ozawa (Joe Mizushima), Josh Radnor (Lonny Flash), Al Pacino (Meyer Offerman), Logan Lerman (Jonah Heidelbaum), Tiffany Boone (Roxy Jones), Carol Kane (Mindy Markowitz(,

Some critics have complained that the last episode’s major reveal stretches credulity, but series author David Weil probably lifted the idea from Edgar Hilsenrath’s satirical novel, The Nazi and the Barber (1971), the black comedy that demonstrates that even racists, like their human forefathers in Nineveh, may have the capacity to repent and are then deserving of mercy.  

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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