Photo: Amazon Studios

In The Future, Everyone Will Be A Nazi For 15 Minutes

Amazon’s new series ‘Hunters’ doesn’t take its villains very seriously

I lived in Astoria, Queens for many years. It’s a tight-knit immigrant community that sits underneath the Hells Gate Bridge which carries trains over the East River and into Long Island. The neighborhood, at least when I got there in the late ’90s, was mostly Greek, with some Italians, Turks, and assorted Eastern Europeans mixed in. The neighborhood was a true ‘melting pot.’

When I moved there I was the first Texan many of my neighbors had ever met. Slowly, over the next ten years Bangladeshis, Moroccans, Mexicans, and more people like me would show up — educated runaways from America’s red states.

I became a productive member of the community: I bought daily bread from the local bakery, fresh feta from one of the Greek supermarkets, and I would get blindingly drunk at a local dive bar staffed by off-the-boat Irish women.

Then, one day in 2007, I woke up hungover and on my way out to find something greasy to eat I saw that a swastika and the word ‘asshole’ had been written in permanent marker on my mailbox, and only my mailbox. I am not Jewish even though I like to think I’d be a sexy young Tevye in a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

The swastika scared me. I would have been mildly concerned by the graffiti but the Nazi symbol seemed to be serious editorializing on the part of the vandal. He wanted to get a message across other than I’m an asshole. The NYPD seemed annoyed when they showed up but they should know, right? There are Nazis out there.

The detective I met asked me point-blank: “Are you Jewish?”

When I told him no, that I was, in fact, half-Mexican, he looked at me like that was a biological impossibility. I was a white dude with brown hair and glasses.

The cops didn’t linger. There wasn’t much they could do. “Do you think it’s Nazis?” I said like I was asking a doctor for a diagnosis.

“Nazi or not, someone in the neighborhood doesn’t like you.”

The villains in the new Amazon series Hunters are Nazis living undercover in New York City in the late ’70s. These Nazis aren’t graffiti artists. No. They’re respected members of American society and no one knows the truth: that they’re actually heinous deep-cover Nazis who survived the war and escaped justice.

They need to be killed. And they are killed, after being hunted down.

Hunters boasts Jordan Peele as an executive producer and stars Academy Award-winning legend Al Pacino but even their great talents can’t save a show where war criminals behave like sneering cartoons. I don’t need my TV Nazis to be Hamlet. But zey shouldn’t be how you say? Caricatures, ja?

In addition to that, the show is also boring. Superficial. There is nothing credible in Hunters: not the bland recreation of the 1970s, not the Jewish characters who confuse Hebrew and Yiddish words and certainly not the elderly German supervillains who are being tracked down by Pacino and his pack of assassins.

I get how this seemed like a winner. At least on paper. “Evil can be decapitated” is popular, and comforting, hogwash. The pedigree aside any show about killing Nazis has a lot going for it.

Americans are obsessed with Nazis. We don’t take them seriously but we can’t get enough of them. As the generation who fought them fade into history our fascination with Nazis and Nazism seems to spread, but not deepen. Their symbols are fashion statements for modern-day white supremacists. Hitler is long dead but his aesthetic and philosophy of hatred endure as a brand. Bigots are his biggest fans.

Even the name itself — Nazi — is an insult thrown around constantly. Especially on the internet. Sometimes actual neo-Nazis are accurately called Nazis but sometimes people who voice unpopular opinions are also called Nazis. The word is beginning to lose its meaning. In the future, everyone will be a Nazi for fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, the Nazis are America’s favorite boogeymen. Folk monsters. The permanent stock bad guys in novels and movies and TV shows. They are everywhere in our pop culture. Some are more over-the-top than others. I don’t know why there’s still such an appetite to watch all-American heroes fight Nazis. I’m pretty sure we won the war.

There are plenty of other perfectly fine villains out there. They don’t all have to be SS officers. With a few tweaks, the Nazis in Hunters could be replaced with body-snatching alien invaders or Soviet super-spies.

At its core Hunters is just a violent action show about a diverse team of vigilantes killing secret evildoers. So who the evildoer is doesn’t really matter. The villains could just as easily been Middle-Eastern terrorists, that other beloved enemy of America.

It is obvious Hunters’ inspirations are movies like The Boys from Brazil, a 1978 cult thriller about famed Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele’s plan to kick-start a Fourth Reich with ubermensch Nazis he breeds and Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 alternate history Inglorious Basterds that features Jewish commandos machine-gunning Hitler. But Hunters isn’t nearly as good as those two Nazi pornos.

Neither The Boys from Brazil nor Inglorious Basterds truly grappled with the very real crimes against humanity the Third Reich committed but at least the former was surprisingly realistic considering its ridiculous premise and the latter is a delirious fever dream from start to finish. Hunters doesn’t have the style to pull off its revenge opera, which is pretty shallow, to begin with.

Speaking of: Hunters got in trouble recently with The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum because the creators obviously didn’t think enough atrocities happened at that concentration camp. The first episode features a flashback where an extremely very, very evil Nazi (those are different from extremely very or just simply very evil Nazis) forces Jewish prisoners to play a deadly game. The scene is like something out of a James Bond movie, only with a true historical backdrop.

“Auschwitz was full of horrible pain & suffering documented in the accounts of survivors,” said the Auschwitz Memorial on Twitter. “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.”

The horrors of Auschwitz were so profound it is truly shocking that Hunter’s producers felt the need to invent all-new horrors. I can’t decide whether this scene was laziness or ignorance or both. But those who don’t take history seriously are doomed to repeat it

My connection to World War II is distant. My relatives who fought in Europe and the Pacific passed away long ago. The only Nazis I have ever known are either trapped in history books or make-believe (I never found out whether the person who wrote on my mailbox was a Nazi or not. That’s a mystery that will never be solved.)

I did meet a guy once who was so proud of being white he started a drinking club that allegedly included a few Nazi wannabes. He was rich and lived in a fancy house in the suburbs. I suppose he decided to take up hate instead of golf.

But I distinctly remember the first time I learned about Nazis. I found a book in my father’s bookshelf about the Holocaust that featured gruesome black-and-white photos of the dead in piles at a concentration camp. I did not understand the context of the photographs I saw. I was a boy and knew nothing of history. But the images gave me nightmares. I knew, on a primal level, they were evil. I can still see them in my mind’s eye: skeletal humans, lipless, lidless, withered. It was the number that was shocking. So many, like stacks of leafless tree branches.

A few years later I saw Raider of the Lost Ark. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that classic 1980 action movie is the only pop culture artifact from our time to survive the apocalypse and some future anthropologist finds it. What would they make of the villains of that movie? Who were the Nazis? The well-dressed rivals of a dashing young grave robber? They’d have no idea of the industrial-sized death and misery they inspired from watching that rollicking adventure.

I was old enough at that point to know that the Nazis fighting Indiana Jones were meant to be the same people who murdered all of those men and women in my father’s grim history book. I remember being happy when that one Gestapo agent’s face melts off.

I don’t know if the world will see mass murderers like the Nazis again but who knows? It’s not a contest but every generation has to confront its own evil because there is something deeply wrong with human beings.

At least the Nazi dream of a white Aryan world failed and Queens, NY, is my proof. It’s a true ‘melting pot,’ give or take a few local fascists.

Currently: Humungus. Formerly: NY Post, CONAN, Sirius XM. 2X James Beard award-winning essayist. I write about culture, politics, feelings.

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