SPOILER WARNING! THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS DETAILS FROM THE OPENING EPISODE OF HUNTERS!!
Have you watched Hunters yet? The thriller series, created by David Weil and executive produced by Jordan Peele, debuted on Amazon Prime this weekend past. I’ve watched the first two episodes thus far and really enjoyed this tale of an eclectic group in 1970s New York who discovers that a group of Nazis escaped the end of World War II and have been secretly living in the USA, plotting the rise of the Fourth Reich. Led by Al Pacino’s wealthy Jewish Holocaust survivor, the group sets out to eradicate these Nazis in revenge for the atrocities they committed. One particular atrocity may have taken things too far though.
In the show’s first episode, Pacino’s Meyer Offerman recounts a horrific tale from his character’s time in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp during which a sadistic Nazi commander plays chess using Jewish prisoners as board pieces. When a piece is taken by one side or the other, the attacking prisoner needs to slit the throat of the “piece” they’re claiming. It was brutal and harrowing, and it totally didn’t happen. And taking to Twitter, the official account of the Auschwitz Memorial was extremely critical about the show’s bit of fiction.
Of course, Hunters isn’t based on factual events and never claims to be. In fact, as the show goes along, it makes it abundantly clear that it’s not being too realistic thanks to massively exaggerated tonal shifts. But irrespective of its lack of veracity, the Auschwitz Memorial still views Hunters’ treatment of events as “disrespectful and dangerous”, indicating that if the show wanted to deal with fictional events, it could have used a fictional camp instead of the very well-documented Auschwitz.
In response to the Auschwitz Memorial’s criticisms, Weil has issued a statement (via THR) explaining that it was grandmother, Sara Weil, a Holocaust survivor, who inspired him to create Hunters. He had visited Auschwitz, where his grandmother was held, and was forever changed after seeing “vestiges of the nightmarish world she had survived.”
It was the moment consecrated in time and memory that I sought to make good on doing my part — however big or however small — to ensure the promise of ‘Never Again’. I believed then — as I do now — that I had a responsibility as the grandson of Holocaust survivors to keep their stories alive.
Hunters’ stories though, as Weil continued, are merely inspired by true events and they never claim otherwise.
… it is not documentary. And it was never purported to be. In creating this series it was most important for me to consider what I believe to be the ultimate question and challenge of telling a story about the Holocaust: how do I do so without borrowing from a real person’s specific life or experience?”
One way in which Weil did this is by having all the prisoners and survivors in the show have prisoner number tattoos higher than the highest-recorded number of 202 499.
I didn’t want one of our characters to have the number of a real victim or a real survivor, as I did not want to misrepresent a real person or borrow from a specific moment in an actual person’s life. That was the responsibility that weighed on me every night and every morning for years, while writing, producing, editing this show. It is the thing I go to sleep thinking about and the thing I wake up working to honor.
These are all laudable sentiments, but then what about the chess scene? Why create something so extra sensationalized when there are plenty of well-documented Nazi atrocities to pull from?
[T]his is a fictionalized event. Why did I feel this scene was important to script and place in series? To most powerfully counteract the revisionist narrative that whitewashes Nazi perpetration, by showcasing the most extreme — and representationally truthful — sadism and violence that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews and other victims. And why did I feel the need to create a fictional event when there were so many real horrors that existed? After all, it is true that Nazis perpetrated widespread and extreme acts of sadism and torture — and even incidents of cruel ‘games’ — against their victims. I simply did not want to depict those specific, real acts of trauma.
Hunters, like a myriad of acclaimed films on the subject, does not always adhere to literal truth in its pursuit of capturing the representational truth of the Holocaust. My decision to fictionalize was made in awareness of this debate, and this show takes the point of view that symbolic representations provide individuals access to an emotional and symbolic reality that allows us to better understand the experiences of the Shoah and provide it with meaning that can address our urgent present.
I’m actually perfectly okay with all of that. Here’s what I’m not okay with. This Nazi chess game isn’t something that Weil created from his imagination to metaphorically represent the extreme Nazi torture, as he claims. Dan Simmons’ 1992 novel Carrion Comfort (which I had just read last year) contained a scene virtually identical to the one in Hunters, with a Nazi officer using Jewish prisoners as chess pieces who have to kill each other as they claim squares.
The difference here is that Simmons’ novel is a horror-fantasy about psychic vampires, one of whom is a sadistic Nazi commander, who can mind-control others and feed on the energies of violent death. In that highly fantastical context, a bloody human chess game fits in much better tonally. Weil’s version also doesn’t feel like it’s paying homage to Simmons’ novel, but rather just copies it outright.
The rest of Hunters is a fantastic show – despite the tonal shifts being a bit jarring at times – so this one abnormality really stands out. Have you seen Hunters and did you notice anything untoward in the scene? And do you think creators should be allowed to embellish on factual events like the Holocaust just to tell their stories?
Last Updated: February 25, 2020