When the announcement arrived that Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele would be teaming up with Al Pacino to make a comic book-tinged series about vigilantes hunting down Nazis in Seventies New York, it appeared something exciting was coming to Amazon Prime Video.
If done well Hunters looked like it had the potential to be a Tarantino-esque revenge tale which made a new kind of superhero figure of those standing up for the persecuted, revisiting the trauma and devastation suffered by the Jewish people during The Holocaust.
From the outset there was nervousness around the handling of such sensitive subject matter, with show creator David Weil telling Digital Spy, "I think there was a lot of fear from buyers. It's a really bold show. It certainly doesn't shy away from certain things", and show producer Nikki Toscano saying she was "terrified of its ambition."
Fast-forward to the week following its release and it appears their concerns were correct, with the show in hot water after being accused of revising history and giving an inadequate response to these accusations.
Explaining the controversy
Hunters follows a group of Nazi hunters in Seventies New York City who are trying to bring the living members of the Third Reich to justice before they can start planning for a Fourth. While there was not actually a Fourth Reich being organised within the government, the show does fictionalise real events from 1970s America where there were many European Nazis welcomed as potentially useful spies against the Soviet Union, with NASA employing a number of war criminals who should have been imprisoned.
However, the way the writers have re-imagined events of the era has drawn criticism for further dialling-up the events of The Holocaust. The most controversial scene depicts a fictitious game of human chess where Jews were killed when a piece was taken, which has been described as "exploitation – maybe fetishisation" and has been condemned.
Auschwitz was full of horrible pain & suffering documented in the accounts of survivors. Inventing a fake game of human chess for @huntersonprime is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature. It also welcomes future deniers. We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy. pic.twitter.com/UM2KYmA4cw— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) February 23, 2020
The Auschwitz Memorial, which preserves the death camp in Poland and helps protect the memory of those who died through education about the horrors of the Holocaust, has publicly criticised the series, calling the "fake" chess game "dangerous foolishness and caricature" and adding that it "welcomes future deniers."
They also called out Amazon, the company behind the series under their Prime Video entertainment service, for selling Nazi propaganda on their website.
“When you decide to make a profit on selling vicious antisemitic Nazi propaganda published without any critical comment or context, you need to remember that those words led not only to the #Holocaust but also many other hate crimes,” the Memorial tweeted.
When you decide to make a profit on selling vicious antisemitic Nazi propaganda published without any critical comment or context, you need to remember that those words led not only to the #Holocaust but also many other hate crimes motivated by #antisemitism. https://t.co/qX4Gsz5h6E— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) February 23, 2020
Amazon have commented on the complaints about Nazi propaganda, telling Reuters via email:
"As a bookseller, we are mindful of book censorship throughout history, and we do not take this lightly. We believe that providing access to written speech is important, including books that some may find objectionable."
It follows their decision in December to withdraw products such as Christmas decorations that were decorated with images of Auschwitz, after the Memorial complained.
The company have not responded to criticism of Hunters, but show creator and Executive Producer David Weil has released statement reading:
"While Hunters is a dramatic narrative series, with largely fictional characters, it is inspired by true events. But it is not documentary. And it was never purported to be,"
"In speaking to the 'chess match' scene specifically… this is a fictionalised 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," he added.
What does this all mean?
While true that Hunters doesn't claim to be a documentary, it begs the question of why you would need to add further fictional horrors to something already so unspeakably dark. It's not unusual for entertainment to play around with history – look at how the main female doctor in Chernobyl was invented to represent multiple female Soviet doctors – but Weil's response that he wanted to "showcase the most extreme – and representationally truthful – sadism and violence" of the Nazis, by adding in more horrific events that didn't take place doesn't seem to add up.
Hunters polarised reactions come after the release of controversial film Jojo Rabbit, a Nazi-satire which follows a young Nazi whose best friend is an imaginary Adolf Hitler, directed and adapted by Taika Waititi. It also comes after the controversy which mired Green Book, the film about celebrated African-American pianist Don Shirley and the tour of the South he took with driver Tony Lip amid rampant racism. The film was embroiled in a string of controversies from issues of factual inaccuracies, not consulting Shirley's living relatives and several controversies over director Peter Farrelly.
These projects have been born out of a desire to find new genres and tones to grapple with the horrors of the past beyond simply making serious dramas. Using comedy, action, fantasy or horror tropes to drive home a sadly relevant message about segregation and difference can be extraordinarily effective when delivered thoughtfully. Just look at the scathing critiques of racism in America in horror film Get Out and absurdist sci-fi Sorry To Bother You.
However the revising of such an unimaginable horror as The Holocaust is something that certainly doesn't need embellishing for dramatic effect.
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