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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Shoah Foundation Director: Amazon Must Cancel ‘Hunters’

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Stephen Smith
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

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Hunters, the heavily promoted new Amazon series about a ring of vigilantes chasing and torturing Nazis in Son of Sam-era New York, is entertaining. It’s also deceptive, voyeuristic, trivializing pulp nonsense that nevertheless claims to be, as its creator says, “representationally truthful.”

As a scholar of genocide and director of a global organization devoted to recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, I believe it’s the most egregious distortion of Holocaust history in my lifetime. The series, created by the well-intentioned grandson of a survivor, does not serve the memory of those it purports to respect. And I fear its pernicious blend of fact and fiction risks being weaponized by Holocaust deniers.

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Amazon must not renew it for a second season.

Amazon must not renew it for a second season.

I’m not averse to fictionalized depictions of the Holocaust; the USC Shoah Foundation grew out of Steven Spielberg’s work on Schindler’s List. I learned a great deal from the 1978 miniseries Holocaust. Quintin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was a masterpiece fantasy of resistance. I devoured Man in the High Castle. And just last year, our foundation partnered with Jojo Rabbit, which took us into the minds of 10-year old Nazis with brutal elegance. 

But Hunters is dangerously different.

The problem is not the acting. Al Pacino and Carol Kane, in particular, are deeply convincing as survivors of the camps. The problem is not the production values, which are glossy, or the storytelling, which is engrossing.  

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The problem is the premise. Survivors of the Shoah sought justice, not revenge. Not so in Hunters. The series’ specious spectacle of eye-for-eye justice (a term one of the “Hunters” uses verbatim in the fifth episode) collapses all meaningful differences between victim and perpetrator. There’s a scene in the pilot in which Pacino’s vigilantes gas a former Nazi chemist in her shower, presented with all the dramatic flair of an action movie. Jews never gassed Nazis. Period. That I must even make this point is proof enough how perilous this slippery slope can become.  

Much of the criticism of the show has revolved around its fabricated depiction of a human chessboard at Auschwitz. But worse is the invention of fake, especially sadistic Nazis who are presented as “famous,” leaving the viewer to do their own research to discover they never existed.

Every day I hear testimonies — real testimonials, from actual survivors — that are horrific beyond imagination and yet true. If the filmmakers had taken the time and trouble to listen to some real experiences, the flashbacks to the Holocaust in the series could have been real things that happened to real people, rather than the fantasies of scriptwriters. 

The viewer is likewise led to believe that the U.S. government actively sought out Nazi scientists and researchers to staff NASA and leading health institutes, a lie that is reinforced as true when one character turns to the camera and says, “Oh yeah, it really happened.”

By blurring the line between fact and fiction, Hunters muddies the historical record, disrespects those who perished, and provides ammunition to those who seek to deny the truth of the Holocaust.

By blurring the line between fact and fiction, Hunters muddies the historical record, disrespects those who perished, and provides ammunition to those who seek to deny the truth of the Holocaust.

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We have been here before. The Night Porter, a 1974 Italian erotic psychological drama about former Nazis hiding their pasts, included depictions of their sadomasochistic activities during the war. The film drew both acclaim and derision. Using the symbology of the camps to recreate a past that did not exist, and then sexualizing it, was clearly for the benefit of entertainment. The question became, did this entertainment come at the expense of those who died?

The 1997 comedy Life is Beautiful earned Roberto Begnini three Oscars and widespread critical acclaim. But his mining of the Holocaust for comedic entertainment raised questions about using plausible scenarios that hadn’t occurred and thereby instrumentalizing the suffering of those who endured unimaginable horrors.

Similarly, in Hunters, the danger of plausible fiction is that it creates a sense of real history, just enough for viewers to suspend disbelief. It then becomes the story, even though it never happened. Later, by “disproving” this invented history, Holocaust deniers can argue that the veracity of all stories can be called into question. 

When a story straddles the line of reality to make everything seem plausible, it crosses the lines of historical integrity and social good. If even a well-meaning audience can walk away confused about this historicity of the Holocaust, then we have done the work of anti-Semites for them.

When everything becomes possible, nothing becomes real. When anything might be true, everything might be false. The Shoah’s survivors know better. So should Amazon.


Stephen D. Smith is the Finci-Viterbi Endowed Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, and holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education. Smith founded the UK Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, England, and co-founded the Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide.

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