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Al Pacino and Logan Lerman star in Amazon Prime's Hunters.

Christopher Saunders/Amazon Studios Prime Video

A few days after the Amazon Prime series Hunters premiered in late February, it received a biting critique from the Auschwitz Memorial, a museum on the site of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The memorial took issue with a scene in the first episode that depicts a game of human chess taking place at the camp. Jews are the compulsory players, and when one captures another, they are forced to kill each other. As the memorial’s official Twitter account pointed out, no such atrocity occurred during the Holocaust. Slamming the scene as “dangerous foolishness and caricature,” the Auschwitz Memorial wrote, “We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy.”

The human chess scene is just one example of the baroque brand of violence on display in Hunters, creator David Weil’s first series, which opens with a poolside bloodbath. The series stars Al Pacino as Meyer Offerman, a Holocaust survivor-turned-vigilante who leads a colourful team of hunters sniffing out former Nazis hiding in plain sight in the United States in the 1970s.

Suspected Nazis are tortured in ever-more severe ways; one is forced to eat manure. Weil has defended himself from accusations of insensitivity by pointing out that his grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and explaining that his show aims to honour victims by showing “representationally truthful” scenes rather than borrowing from a real person’s story.

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Of course, plenty of movies and TV shows take liberties with history. In 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino imagines a squad of Nazi-killing Jewish American soldiers and a revenge narrative in which a blonde Jewish woman, hiding her identity, orchestrates the murder of Hitler in a thrillingly climactic scene that suggests the power of cinema to rewrite historical narratives. Late last year, HBO aired Watchmen, creator Damon Lindelof’s kaleidoscopic remix of the popular 1980s comic book. The show uses the 1921 Tulsa massacre, in which over 150 black residents were killed, as a jumping-off point to explore America’s history of white supremacist violence; its subsequent departures from reality are grounded in that history and have the effect of illuminating a larger truth about race and power in America.

But Weil’s feverish attempt to marry sombre historical reckoning with Tarantino-style revisionist pastiche only underscores how out of his depth this young writer is. Watching Hunters, it’s hard not to suspect he’s injected his sadistic reveries for a more gut-level reason – simply in order to be awesome.

Take that infamous chess scene. It’s emblematic of the show’s treatment of violence as a kind of game; another scene depicts a Nazi guard forcing his Jewish prisoners to sing along to a German song, shooting whoever sings off-key or gets the words wrong. This, too, is fictional and underscores Weil’s deeply misguided impulse to constantly one-up the Holocaust.

Why did Weil decide not to borrow from the well-documented realities of the Holocaust? His long-winded rationale indicates that even he isn’t really sure. The chess scene was included, he claims, “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.”

Rather than shedding light on a “representational” truth, I’d argue Weil’s choices do the opposite: They upstage the truth. There’s a desperation here to capture the audience’s attention with increasingly extreme and visually punchy forms of violence, as if real Nazi brutality isn’t shocking enough. More than honouring his grandmother, I suspect Weil’s decision to inject some B-movie thrills into a story of real human suffering springs from a sense that audiences have become familiar, to the point of desensitization, to Holocaust stories.

The result is a series that wants to have it both ways – to use the built-in gravitas of the Holocaust to add weight to a cliché-ridden Tarantino knock-off, complete with a vigilante squad that includes a sexy, ass-kicking nun and a Foxy Brown-like blaxploitation hero literally named Roxy. Weil could have simply made Hunters an homage to 1970s exploitation flicks; as schlocky as it might have been, that version would avoid the moral and artistic quandary raised by the fabricated flashback scenes set in real concentration camps. It’s this tonal asymmetry that ultimately sinks the show.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of all this is that, despite Weil’s frenzied efforts in the service of audacity, there’s nothing particularly transgressive or challenging about Hunters’s approach to the Holocaust or the idea of vigilante justice. It feels surprisingly safe – Tarantino is cool; Nazis are evil, therefore it’s acceptable, and even necessary, to stage endless graphic scenes of their torture. For all Weil’s talk about “representational truth,” what’s on display here is bluntly literal. There’s no poetry to the show’s images, and little sense of nuance or ambiguity. It just doesn’t seem as if much thought has been put into this series beyond the level of gut-punch carnage and psych-out plot twists.

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In her 2010 book A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, critic Ruth Franklin argues that Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night is “devastating first because of its simplicity.” She writes of the slim, 121-page book, “One has the sense of merciless experience mercilessly distilled to its essence, because to take a story as fundamentally brutal as this one and clutter it with embellishments would be grotesque.” Embellishment for the sake of empty provocation isn’t just distasteful; it leads to clunky narratives and confused themes. It makes for bad art.

Racial oppression, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust – these are problems with no easy solutions. Hunterss approach to the history of Nazi atrocities and homegrown, American fascism feels like an evasion of uncomfortable realities. The show would have us believe that bloody revenge is a satisfying fix for generational trauma; that the problem of white supremacy seeping into the bloodstream of polite society can be solved by a crack team of B-movie vigilantes. “Living well isn’t the best revenge,” Meyer intones in the first episode. “Revenge is the best revenge.” The fantasy that Hunters offers isn’t one of cathartic Nazi-killing. It’s the delusion that violence really is the answer.

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