Amazon debuted its highly anticipated new original series Hunters last Friday, and while the Nazi hunting show has certainly had people buzzing, it’s also drawn criticism from the Auschwitz Memorial. The dramatic thriller TV series takes place in the 1970s and stars Al Pacino as a Holocaust survivor who has put together a team to hunt down Nazis living secretly in America. In the pilot episode (light spoilers follow), a flashback reveals a particularly sadistic event at a concentration camp in which the Nazis are shown forcing their victims to play a human match of chess, in which victims are forced to kill one another whenever taking over a spot on the board.
The flashback has a personal connection to Pacino’s character and to the show’s protagonist, played by Logan Lerman, but it didn’t sit well with the Auschwitz Memorial which tweeted the following:
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
Indeed, I’ll admit while I do admire and enjoy some aspects of the series, I found the notion of Jewish prisoners killing other Jewish prisoners in a fictionalized event a bit in poor taste. Showrunner and creator David Weil—who was partially inspired to create the show by his grandmother’s survivor stories—released a statement defending the depiction, noting that he didn’t want to mine real-life events for the show.
For the sake of letting Weil speak for himself, here’s his full statement on the matter:
Years ago I visited Auschwitz and I saw the gates my grandmother was forced to enter decades earlier and the barracks she was forced to live in as a prisoner. I saw vestiges of the nightmarish world she had survived. It was an experience that forever altered the course of my life. It was the moment consecrated in time and memory that I sought to make good on doing my part – however big or however small – to ensure the promise of “Never Again.” I believed then – as I do now – that I had a responsibility as the grandson of Holocaust survivors to keep their stories alive.
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 creating this series it was most important for me to consider what I believe to be the ultimate question and challenge of telling a story about the Holocaust: how do I do so without borrowing from a real person’s specific life or experience?
It was for this reason that I made the decision that all of the concentration camp prisoners (and survivors) in the series would be given tattoos above the number 202,499. 202,499 is the highest recorded number given to a prisoner at Auschwitz. I didn’t want one of our characters to have the number of a real victim or a real survivor, as I did not want to misrepresent a real person or borrow from a specific moment in an actual person’s life. That was the responsibility that weighed on me every night and every morning for years, while writing, producing, editing this show. It is the thing I go to sleep thinking about and the thing I wake up working to honor.
In speaking to the “chess match” scene specifically… this is a fictionalized 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. And why did I feel the need to create a fictional event when there were so many real horrors that existed? After all, it is true that Nazis perpetrated widespread and extreme acts of sadism and torture – and even incidents of cruel “games” – against their victims. I simply did not want to depict those specific, real acts of trauma.
If the larger philosophical question is can we ever tell stories about the Holocaust that are not documentary, I believe we can and should. HUNTERS, like a myriad of acclaimed films on the subject, does not always adhere to literal truth in its pursuit of capturing the representational truth of the Holocaust. My decision to fictionalize was made in awareness of this debate, and this show takes the point of view that symbolic representations provide individuals access to an emotional and symbolic reality that allows us to better understand the experiences of the Shoah and provide it with meaning that can address our urgent present.
I am forever grateful to the Auschwitz Memorial for all of the important and vital work that they do, for keeping the memory of victims and survivors like my grandmother, Sara Weil, alive. I believe we are very much on the same side and working toward the same goals. And I hope we can continue a dialogue on how to achieve those goals.
Telling Holocaust stories in a fictionalized medium is a difficult task. Taika Waititi came under fire just a few months ago for the light tone of his WWII-set film Jojo Rabbit, despite the fact that that film is told from the point of view of a child. Regardless, when tackling an event as atrocious and important as the Holocaust—especially when so many are actively trying to diminish or deny its impact—you’re going to come under intense scrutiny. Do I think Hunters is perfect in this regard? Not really. The tone isn’t sure if it wants to be deferential or cartoony, and I think that’s where the mixed messages come in. But I also understand and respect that Weil is coming from a well-meaning place.
There is room for different kinds of approaches to telling stories about the Holocaust, but we must also understand first and foremost this is a real thing that happened to real people, and sensitivity is key.