Spoiler alert: this article contains plot details from series one of Hunters.
In the very opening episode of the hit Amazon Prime drama Hunters, SS man Heinz Richter forces Auschwitz prisoner Markus Roth, a chess grandmaster, to play a game. But this is no ordinary chess game – prisoners are used as “pieces” – and when one piece is moved to a square occupied by another, prisoners are forced to kill.
Thanks to an interactive feature introduced by Amazon for the series, viewers watching on their computers can hover over various scenes with a mouse to get further information. For this scene that information is that the human chess game is an invention – but that “it is absolutely true that Nazis played deadly games with their prisoners”.
“The chess board”, we are told, “is a fiction that illuminates a larger truth”.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum accused the series of “welcoming future deniers”. In a long statement for the magazine Variety, David Weil, the series creator, responded that the chess match scene was designed to:
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.
Weil believes that symbolic representations provide access to an emotional reality, allowing us to better understand the Holocaust. But what he describes as a symbolic representation is a myth. If the game of human chess is untrue, it cannot illuminate truth, larger or smaller: it can only undermine it.
The same charge can be levelled against John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), which depicts the son of a Nazi perpetrator (Bruno) and a Jewish victim of the Nazis (Shmuel) chatting away happily over a barbed-wire fence like neighbours, before Bruno slips into the camp to be with Shmuel. Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum has also warned against this text, pleading for it to be “avoided” by anyone who teaches or studies the Holocaust.
Boyne’s self-defence was even more robust than Weil’s – and equally as problematic. He told The Guardian that the book “was a work of fiction … and therefore by its nature cannot contain inaccuracies, only anachronisms, and I don’t think there are any of those in there”. But this is wordplay. As far as I am concerned, if a work of fiction changes history then its portrayal is inaccurate. The point is whether that matters. For Boyne, it doesn’t. But schoolchildren across the country are introduced to the Holocaust through this novel. It sells well because it purports to be about the Holocaust. This is a dangerous illusion.
It is deeply revisionist, making victims of perpetrator family members: Bruno is gassed alongside Shmuel and – in Mark Herman’s 2008 film of the novel – Bruno’s mother’s grief is foregrounded at the end – not the fate of the murdered Jews.
Hunters also creates alarming parallels. On one level, it’s a series about conspiracies. Disasters ranging from the Watergate scandal to the 1977 New York City blackout are ascribed to Nazi preparations for a “Fourth Reich”. Here too, then, Hunters takes liberties with history. But nobody denies that the New York City blackout happened or disputes how it happened, so reimagining its actual cause (lightning storms) is not going to feed denial. Inventing Holocaust atrocities is.
On another level, Hunters is a Holocaust revenge drama comparable to films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Atom Egoyan’s Remember (2015). Former Jewish victims of Auschwitz, a former Kindertransportee, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor – among others – take it upon themselves to deliver what their leader Meyer Offermann calls “God’s justice”. That means brutally murdering Nazis living in the US, some of them scientists recruited after the war to help the Americans gain a military advantage in the Cold War. There are points in the film where the avenging Jews are as savage as the neo-Nazis whose killings we also see.
In a key exchange, the famous (real-life) Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (played by Judd Hirsch) confronts Offermann and tells him he has devoted his life to seeking compensation for Holocaust victims. For Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter is the “profession of angels” – and “angels do not get blood on their wings”. For Offermann, that means allowing Nazis to “eradicate the Jew before we ever have a chance to fight them back”.
The two paths – here legal redress, there rough justice – intersect and conflict with one another throughout the series, sometimes within the consciences of the killers. One of them, Jonah Heidelbaum, grandson of Auschwitz victim Ruth, is torn between the feeling that he is honouring her memory and the concern that he is desecrating it by killing in her name. But he too comes to kill with relish.
To be fair, Hunters exposes the moral hypocrisy of the Allies, who put Nazis on trial in Nuremberg while secretly recruiting their best minds for post-war weapons programmes. But it also risks smoothing over the differences between Jewish Holocaust victims and the Nazi perpetrators.
A twist at the end of the series may go some way towards removing uncomfortable parallels – but it does so by an unconvincing sleight of hand (you will have to watch it to find out). Overall, Hunters leaves a bad taste in the mouth.