Today’s TV landscape already features “what-if” imaginings of post-World War II life, in last year’s “Man in the High Castle” and the forthcoming “The Plot Against America,” as well as “The Devil Next Door,” a documentary series about the 1980s trial of accused Nazi-found-in-America John Demjanjuk.
Joining that scene is “Hunters,” a 10-part Amazon series that asks us to imagine a 1970s America infiltrated by former high-level Nazis, who are mobilizing as an underground group to establish a Fourth Reich. In that same universe, a band of diverse, justice-seeking vigilantes — helmed by Holocaust survivor Meyer Offerman (a raspy Al Pacino) — have tasked themselves with eliminating the rising American Nazi threat.
Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) discovers Offerman and his team after the shocking murder of his grandmother. This encounter forces him to confront his Jewish identity and his grandmother’s legacy and to challenge his conception of justice and revenge. In one particular exchange, Offerman justifies his own attitude and behaviors, all the while obscuring the moral difference between justice and revenge because Jews have been massacred “from Masada to Munich.”
“What should we do? Shake hands? Turn a blind eye? Forget? The greatest single gift of the Jewish people is our capacity to remember. And it’s because of our memory that we know this is survival. This is not murder. This is mitzvah … We must instill fear, send the message, let them know not again, no more, no more,” Offerman says. “You know what the best revenge is? Revenge.”
That revenge is wreaked through targeted assassinations in which the modes of torture and death are selected to match what the Nazis in hiding perpetrated against their victims during the war. Some of the “justice” scenes are hard to watch, recalling Tarantino (including one moment that seems an homage to “Reservoir Dogs”) or evoking memories of gory episodes of “Dexter”; the team forces the captured Nazis to confront photos of themselves from the war and tortures them into confessions.
We know why the Nazis are being targeted, but it’s not until episode 5 that we finally get our first real idea of the personal stakes of each of the vigilantes, the inner motivations that drive the individuals in the band toward achieving their search-and-assassinate missions. (This review is based on the first five episodes, made available for prescreening; all 10 episodes are now available on Amazon Prime Video.)
Imagining the Holocaust through a creative lens always leads to some audience discomfort. But in the “Hunters” narrative, that discomfort is woven into its fabric on two additional levels: the use of comedy or satire to drive home a dramatic point, and the blurry line between justice and revenge. These interjected, exaggerated, comic book-style scenes can be read as clever or comedic, and the sudden shift in tone can be unsettling.
Some audiences are going to reject this blend of styles, reverting to well-trod positions in the conversation about the role of humor, comedy or satire in Holocaust-themed stories. But this isn’t Lanzmann’s “Shoah” or Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List. ” This is something new that feels familiar and personal because it borrows both from history and from the pop culture imagination.
The challenges for me were some of the snarky language and the pronunciation of Hebrew. Vigilante Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor) is the main snark whisperer, with jarring lines proclaiming people to be “braver than a Palestinian on a hijacked 747” or “more scared than an uncut schlong at a mohel convention.” Even the Hebrew-fluent may have trouble identifying all the words in the somewhat mangled El Maleh Rachamim (a prayer often said at funerals). The Eastern European accents are heavy and sometimes make dialogue — Pacino’s, in particular — nearly incomprehensible, especially when he’s speaking Hebrew or Yiddish. (Another reminder to Hollywood: I am available for Jewish joke punch-up as well as Hebrew pronunciation and ritual consultation.)
“Hunters” was created by David Weil to honor the stories of his Holocaust survivor savta Sara Weil, who survived Auschwitz, Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen. (Academy Award-winner Jordan Peele is also a producer.)
“Her stories were weapons and seeds that carry her truth into the future and now will forever remain alive with ‘Hunters,’” Weil said about his grandmother at the Los Angeles premiere.
Those who stand stalwart in their position that there is no aspect of the Holocaust that should be treated lightly, whether it’s as satire or allegory or as a tragicomic relief within a dramatic narrative, will probably be very uncomfortable with “Hunters.” But those of us who endure the graphic violence and the comedic speed bumps amid the horror of “Hunters” may emerge with the understanding that at the series’ core is the same oft-repeated urge — practically a commandment in Jewish communities onscreen and off — to never forget.