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Friday, February 28, 2020

What if Keyser Soze were a Nazi?

We finished watching The Hunters, the Amazon Prime series about a rag-tag group of Nazi hunters in 1977 New York. They hunt and exact poetic justice (e.g., a propagandist, clearly meant to be Leni Riefenstahl, was made to eat manure) on Nazi war criminals allowed into the U.S. following World War II, as well as trying to stop them from establishing a Fourth Reich in the U.S. The show tries to be both a Tarrantino revenge fantasy a la Inglorious Bastards and a meditation on the ethics of vengeance--and misses the mark on both.

I wanted to like the show and I think I am part of its target audience. But I could not, especially following its big twist. Major spoilers ahead, so I placed the entire post after the jump.

The show mixes 1977 events with flashbacks to Auschwitz depicting fictional atrocities. One involved a guard who has a group of prisoners sing, then shoots one after another for getting a word wrong or for being off-key, until one "winner" remains. Another involved a camp doctor giving a prisoner a choice--shoot the female prisoner the man loves or shoot a series of random prisoners; he shoots 11 random prisoners. Another involved a game of human chess, in which taking a piece meant one prisoner killing another. The last drew outrage from the Auschwitz Memorial, which complained that inventing a piece of Nazi cruelty creates caricature (as if the real atrocities were not bad enough) and provides deniers with a weapon (if this chess game did not happen, maybe the whole thing is false). Showrunner David Weil, whose grandparents were survivors, defended the chess scene as "representationally truthful"--a fictionalized event that reflects similarly sadistic real events.

I had trouble staying in the story because of a number of nonsensical narrative moves. One involves the timeline. The year 1977 was 32 years after the end of WWII. The characters of Meyer Offerman (played by Al Pacino) and Ruth Heidelbaum (the grandmother of Jonah, the other main character) were shown in their early-to-mid-20s when they were sent to Auschwitz, so would have been in their mid-to-late-50s when the story takes place, a good decade or two younger than the actors portraying them (Pacino is 79, the actress playing Ruth is 71). They probably would seem older than their years given what they endured, but the image of people doing this late in life, as they are frail and about to take their memories with them, does not add up. And most of the Nazis they are hunting are cast and portrayed in the appropriate age range.

The timeline gets worse when we consider Ruth's daughter and grandson. Meyer (not the U.S. soldier Ruth married after liberation) fathered the child when he and Ruth were reunited at the displaced person's camp following liberation--so she would have been born in late 1945 or early 1946. Jonah, Ruth's grandson, is 18 when the story takes place, meaning he was born in 1959-when his mother (who died in childbirth) was 13 or 14. Oops or yuck. Perhaps this was intentional--the daughter's pregnancy was the result of an assault and her young age contributed to her death (and no one mentioned Jonah's father); that could be revealed in a (unlikely?) Season 2. On the other hand , a scene from the first  20 minutes of the series suggests this was not intentional: At Ruth's shiva, a woman tells Jonah he is not a mourner and Jonah responds with a litany of the tragedies of Ruth's life (parents shot in the ghetto, sister killed in the camp, husband killed in Korea, and only child bleeding out giving birth); had the daughter also been the victim of an assault, he might have mentioned it.

The  second of the major spoilers makes even less timeline sense. At the end of the finale, we learn that Hitler is alive  in Argentina; his hair and mustache are gray and he moves slowly with a cane, but otherwise seems healthy. In fact, he seems more youthful than Meyer and Ruth. No. Hitler was 56 years old and in terrible health by the end of the War. Put aside that we know he killed himself in the bunker. The idea that had he escaped he would have survived three decades and remained alive at 89 is absurd.

There is a lot of anachronism in the show, an attempt to link this story to current Neo-Nazis. But having a Nazi chant "Jews will not replace us" in 1977 is cheesy. So, too, is having the good guys repeat phrases like "fascist fucks," the kind of modern Twitter-speak that did not fit the times. Someone speaks of Congress as an institution built for "white skin and blue blood"--no one spoke like that in 1977.

I may be wrong about this, but it seems as if the show conflated two things in explaining why all these Nazis were in the U.S.  One is "Operation Paperclip," the real secret plan that brought high-level Nazi scientists such as Wehrner Von Braun to the U.S. The other is some number of Nazis who escaped Europe and snuck into the U.S. (think John Demjanjuk). The story ties everything to the former--all the Nazis they are chasing were brought here as part of an official secret government program; Operation Paperclip (and thus the U.S. government) is the great evil in which the government intentionally brought into the fold thousands of people now trying to create a new Nazi regime and kill Blacks and Jews in America. But the two are distinct. There were numbers of war criminals who came to the U.S. but not as part of that government program--these are the people that the Office of Special Investigations, established in 1978, targeted for prosecution and deportation.*

[*] On the show, the hero FBI agent (who is African-American and lesbian) receives a visit from Rep. Elizabeth Handelman, a Jewish congresswoman from New York wearing oversized glasses. She is a not-remotely veiled Elizabeth Holtzman, who sponsored the legislation creating the OSI. Handelman celebrates a Black FBI agent and "Jewish broad" working together to create Nazi nightmares--we get it, diversity defeats the master race.

That brings me to the main twist, revealed midway through the final episode: "Meyer" is actually the Nazi doctor "The Wolf"--a camp doctor so sadistic, we are told, he made Mengele uncomfortable. The Wolf tortured Meyer and Ruth at Auschwitz (because he wanted Ruth for himself) and he is the main Nazi they have been hunting. Via Pacino exposition, we (along with Jonah) learn that The Wolf escaped Soviet custody, killed Meyer, assumed his identity, had plastic surgery, and sneaked into the United States; he had been living and working for 30+ years as a Jewish businessman, learning Hebrew, reading Torah, and working with Jewish organizations, as well as hunting and killing Nazis. By living as a Jew, he realized the evil of his actions (and the wonders of being Jewish?);** the "hunt" was his penance. Imagine if Keyser Soze were a Nazi rather than a Turkish criminal mastermind and you have a sense of how the scene played.

[**] It helped that his sadism at Auschwitz was not ideological. He did not abuse Jews because he believed them inferior; he abused Jews because absolute power corrupts absolutely. So he could turn around and live a Jewish life because he did not regard Jews as bad.

This changes the show's underlying theme; it is no longer about vengeance v. procedural justice, but something different. Could someone who perpetrated horrors against the Jewish people turn around and live a Jewish life to thereby discover and atone for his past evils? Can someone truly atone for those acts, in the overall balance? Can such a person by these acts add goodness to the world (which is the purpose behind living a Jewish life). Is there something offensive about such a person--without conversion or publicly acknowledging his true identity--living this life, reading Torah, etc.? This is an interesting philosophical germ. But the twist was so unearned and so incoherent given the narrative that led to it that these questions were lost (especially when we piled onto the Hitler twist at the end).

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 28, 2020 at 11:31 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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