I wasn’t around New York City in the 1970’s, but I’ve watched enough movies to gather a vague idea of the streets.
Knowing World War II history, and the cultural divides in city neighbourhoods, it’s not a brand-new thought for me to imagine dilapidated townhouses in specific areas of the city populated by the offspring of Yiddish speaking Jewish grandparents. And that’s some of what Amazon Canada wanted to show us at this week’s event for Hunters. Transforming a Toronto concert hall into the streets of 70’s New York, we were surrounded by mustached cops leaning on light posts by subway stations, graffiti on walls, posts, and phone booths, and of course, spiced nuts and pretzels with the all-important grainy mustard. This to get us in the mood for their new series, Hunters, the tale of a group of vengeance-seeking Nazi killers looking to settle post-WWII scores.
The side stories of Nazi killers have always been solid fodder for media. Inglorious Basterds, loosely based on a gaggle of Nazi hunters during the war, was a successful cathartic romp that let us cheer on killers with moral superiority intact. We’ve killed them in video games, they’ve been lampooned in comedies, subjects of horror, and even the X-Men took on hunting retired Nazi doctors in First Class. Hunters is the newest take on vengeance against Nazis hiding in plain sight, with one of the most noticeable differences being that the show is incredibly Jewish.
The Bear Jew and guys named Utivich made Inglorious pretty Jewish, but in setting Hunters in a post WWII New York City, the show is able to focus on the culture of Jews, the next generation living on after their attempted extermination. These Jews are survivors and their offspring are being pushed towards a better life, towards available opportunity, while trying to protect each other and manage the affects of their apparent dwindling oppression and inherited trauma. It’s no coincidence that in one of the opening scenes of the first episode, which was screened for us at the event, Jonah (Logan Lerman) is called an antisemitic slur, and is beaten up in his own neighbourhood. It’s also not a coincidence that Jonah takes the hits, and stands as tall as he can until he can’t physically stand anymore.
The end of WWII and the end of the holocaust was neither the end of antisemitism nor the end of Nazis, and Hunters places itself right in a meaty part of that fight, now happening under the radar in toy stores and at barbeques. The Nazi doctor form is still there in svelte blonde men with cartoonish German accents and creepy smiles at the sight of death, but there are also Nazis that look like everyone else; Florida retirees and shop owners who just ordered those new dolls everyone is looking for. But the Jews don’t have the luxury of hiding, or maybe they don’t have the will. In plain sight, Jews are attending shul, ordering chicken soup, and looking like, well, Jews, noticeably different from guys named Travis and Toby, and more like guys named Heidelbaum and Markowitz.
Hunters can be jarring for those who haven’t been forced to grow darkly comedic in the face of unspeakable trauma. It opens with a brightly coloured family barbecue that descends into a bloodbath when a Jew recognizes a Nazi, forcing the Nazi’s back against the wall. Facing the fear the world had told her ended with the war, a Jew is staring at her Nazi butcher, and she proudly recites the shema, a prayer of protection, as she faces the potential slaughter she had already apparently escaped. Then we catch up with some funny kids chatting about Star Wars. The Jewish existence has often been balancing the unthinkable with a joke, and Hunters captures just that.
The Jewish concepts of forgiveness and vengeance differ greatly from the more popular Christian views. The Talmud teaches a version of forgiveness, but that one may withhold forgiveness when appropriate if the subject has not adequately repented. Is the best revenge to live well, as the Talmud teaches? Sure. But go with the requirement to forgive, Jews may live with the spirit of vengeance, and say, form a gaggle of Nazi hunters.
Hunters, thus far, has shown itself to be a fun and cathartic take on the Nazi-hunting theme, leaving room for lightheartedness, cheer-able kills, and what it means to endure. Taking us to new times and places, it lets us face the aftermath of on its face oppression and the inherited oppression that lingers. It manages to not only capture the spirit of Judaism through men named Meyer wearing kippahs at a Shiva, but through the Jewish ability to use comedy against tragedy, and our desire for revenge, which, as one once said, is the best revenge.