NEW YORK — Early in “Hunters,” this season’s heavily promoted series from Amazon, a larger-than-life man who has survived Auschwitz and amassed a great fortune quotes the Talmud. “Live well,” he tells a grieving young man. “It is the greatest revenge.”
Later, he changes his mind. “The Talmud was wrong,” says the man who seems to have figured out all of life’s secrets. “Living well is not the best revenge. You know what the best revenge is? Revenge.”
The line packs a wallop and it’s a wonderful bit of acting the way Al Pacino (yes, Al Pacino) says it in a thick, albeit wobbly, Mitteleuropean accent. Only later, perhaps as you take a quick break between one propulsive episode of this action-packed Nazi-killing adventure to the next, does it hit you that it actually makes no sense.
This is the fundamental push-pull I felt watching “Hunters,” of which the first five of 10 episodes were made available to critics. It is undeniably enjoyable — I for one very much want to see the architects of the Final Solution killed by a band of highly skilled Jews in ways that mirror their wartime cruelties — but it’s just too stupid to take seriously.
Within five minutes of the first episode, the first of many far-fetched concepts — a sleeper cell of Nazis infiltrating the upper echelons of the Carter Administration — undermines a subject that already had plenty of drama. As the recently released Netflix documentary about John Demjanjuk “The Devil Next Door” showed, the integration of Nazi criminals into American society need not be the stuff of fiction.
We enter the world of “Hunters” through the eyes of 19-year-old Jonah Heidelbaum, well-played by the always reliable Logan Lerman. (It feels like the young Jewish actor’s been playing 19-year-olds for 10 years, but that’s Hollywood, I guess.)
Jonah is a good kid living in New York’s multicultural borough of Brooklyn in 1977. When we first meet him he’s coming out of a screening of “Star Wars” and discussing the nature vs. nurture debate concerning Darth Vader’s evil. We’ll later see that he works in a comic book shop, so prepare yourself for plenty of Batman and X-Men jokes.
Jonah’s an orphan and lives with his concentration camp-surviving grandmother, played by Jeannie Berlin. (Of note: Berlin’s discovery of pot in his backpack might mark the first use of the Yiddish term chazerai in a significant television program. Who says America isn’t ready for a Jewish president?) Later, a burglar comes to the house and grandma ends up shot. But the guy didn’t steal anything, and the overheard dialogue makes it sound like the man knew who she was.
When the mysterious Meyer Offerman (Pacino) comes to the shiva and leaves his card, we realize that Savta was doing more than just making chicken soup. She was part of an elite kill squad devoted to finding high-ranking, brutal Nazis living in the United States. “It’s not murder, it’s a mitzvah,” Offerman says when young Jonah gives him some “Is this right?” pushback.
The acts of vengeance are violent and, I suppose I may as well be honest here, gratifying. And many of the flashback scenes to the ghettos and camps are troubling and brutal. But then things go too far in weirdly opposite directions. The series breaks from reality in ways that are grotesque, to the point that it is borderline offensive. And then it whips back to silly and “fun” sequences, to “Saturday Night Live”-like comedy sketches introducing new characters (“Chabad-asses? Come on) or with like graphics flying around the screen looking like a 70s cop show.
An early specific example of something “too much,” yet is key to the plot, is a sequence set at Auschwitz in which a sadistic officer discovers one of the prisoners is a chess master. After losing to him in a match he clears out a field, collects other Jews, and lays them out like a living chessboard. The terrorized genius is forced to call moves out, and when pieces are taken, they are forced to slice the carotid arteries of the other stand-in.
It’s a fairly typical horror movie sequence but, honestly, weren’t the crimes of Auschwitz enough? Do you have to dress up Auschwitz of all places with silly exploitation movie tropes? And if you do want to go that route, how are we supposed to take the other would-be touching scenes at the camps seriously? The air is out of the balloon.
Despite this misstep (and others like it) “Hunters” has no shortage of finely-observed Jewish moments. Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek are part of the team (gadgets experts) and each of their scenes are funny and tender. One of their children has died (it’s a little vague how) and Rubinek has rejected religion while Kane still has faith. A rabbi visits their home and the plate of black and white cookies they offer is a nice touch.
There’s plenty else that’s crafty, too, like the Hunters trapping one of their victims in a glass shower that suddenly resembles Adolf Eichmann’s booth during his trial in Jerusalem. Or calling their fake plumbing company “Abraham and Sons.”
Then there’s the whole storyline that we might wish was far-fetched, but unfortunately isn’t: recalling just how rife with Nazis NASA was during the space race, and how willing the American government was to ignore their crimes against humanity in the drive to get to the moon. “Hunters” got me Googling about Hubertus Strughold, who performed heinous medical torture experiments on human subjects at Dachau. NASA later dubbed Strughold “The Father of Space Medicine” and gave an annual award in his name UP UNTIL SEVEN YEARS AGO.
With half the season left, I’m definitely curious enough to see how things end up. I’ll keep watching. A whole secondary plot involving an FBI agent on their tail will, I suspect, take a twist, and she’ll probably end up joining their cause. There are also other members of the group whose backstories we haven’t gotten to yet.
I can’t deny that Al Pacino shouting in his inimitable fashion about Jewish persecution “from Masada to Munich!” has a certain charm. I will, however, keep in mind not to take any of it too seriously. “The Torah is the ultimate comic book!” Pacino barks at one point. And, as with most comic books, they can be a little childish.
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