Sunday, March 15, 2020

March Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- HUNTERS: Superhero Nazi hunters, murderers or mitzvah-doers?

This post is written 
by our monthly correspondent, 
Lee Liberman

Indignantly called schlock-cum-exploitation by some reviewers, HUNTERS arrives as the latest Holocaust-minded series loosely based on the presence in the US of Nazis who fled here after the war or were imported for their expertise and tracked down by real Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesenthal.

In this Amazon telling, our motley band comes off according to Sophie Gilbert writing in The Atlantic as "all aestheticized violence and infantile philosophizing, like a George Clooney Batman movie directed by Quentin Tarantino." Picture Marvel and grind-house images mashed up for thrills. 

The breezy philosophic questions are whether it’s OK to kill a Nazi since the police won’t do the job or does it take evil to fight evil? Shortly we have an answer: ‘the best revenge is revenge’. (Our hero Jonah says the only difference between superheros and villains is who sells the most costumes at Halloween.) The aesthetic here is comic book not history book, with good-natured satire of the hunters. They face off against sadistic, one-dimension Nazi foes who sieg heil and spout Nazi tropes as they plot the 4th Reich with their U.S. leader, The Colonel, played by Lena Olin. One of her evil-doers, Biff, makes your mouth curl. He’s an oily southern weasel, risen to Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, a Nazi hiding in plain sight (the droll Dylan Baker, below).

We meet Biff in the series opener on a day he starts as genial American family guy and ends as killing machine like his golden era days as butcher of a German camp committing mass murder in the backyard of his Chevy Chase mega-mansion.

The setting-in-chief is not Washington D.C., however, but graffiti-laden, psychedelic NYC of the 1970’s, in which one hunter stands in for the Black Power movement and another for the PTSD’d Vietnam war vets who were part of 70’s atmospherics.

Logan Lerman (at left, below, of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Percy Jackson films) is our chief protagonist, playing teen comic book junkie Jonah Heidelbaum in the manner of Spiderman’s Peter Parker or maybe Robin with the genius intellect of Batman. Jonah is drawn into the Nazi hunter ring to avenge the murder of his Safta (grandma) Ruth (Jeannie Berlin, below, right). She was a Holocaust survivor with a secret life of her own.

Following Ruth's funeral, Jonah is taken up by Hunters' impresario (and Bruce-Wayne-rich) Meyer Offerman, who slips back and forth between professorial Jewish grandpa and mob boss, a mensch* of a juicy character for Al Pacino (center l, below) to chew on.

The hunters gang was assembled by Meyer with the aid of a Jewish matchmaker with a weaponized rolodex, each agent’s backstory to be unwrapped in time. Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) plays a washed-up actor whose foppish impersonation skills sort of work for their capers, but a Jewish Daniel Craig he is not. The weapons experts, Murray and Mindy Markowitz (Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane) are a likable old married duo whom we come to understand through flashbacks to their war-time horrors. A British nun (Kate Mulvany) is grim and mean, which is cleared up by a peak at her survivor tale; she was one of many Jewish children sent to hide in Catholic institutions, where this child was deprived of supper by the nuns until she threw away her mezuzah** and bowed to Catholic dictate.

Along with hunters and Nazis is law enforcement, a non-force here. Jonah sits with an officer he wishes would find his Safta’s murderer and grumbles: "All you're doing is sitting around circle jerking to police sketches of Son of Sam." It was well-meaning police who didn't get the job done that inspired the hunters in the first place; the gang are now under investigation as their output of dead Nazis piles up. FBI agent Millie Norris (Jerrika Hinton, above) is the only one sifting clues to figure out which guys are bad and which are good, as a Nazi resurrection takes shape.

The chapters proceed from one bizarre Nazi take-down to the next ("shalom motherf---er; it’s mitzvah***, not murder!") interspersed with snapshots of concentration camps that are the sobering origin material for hunter gang-bangs. Jonah has become their code-breaker, using superpowers of his own. A character twist at the end doesn’t quite work — a lame effort, perhaps, to make sense of how ordinary people are anesthetized into idol worship and then undergo a heart-opening reversal. As this is comic-book-land, not psychological or historical analysis, we want our heroes and evil-doers sharp as razor-blades; this change-about sits awkwardly near the end of the series, though it does help to un-confuse Meyer’s strange connection to Jonah’s beloved Safta Ruth.

One device drew special ire from the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum: a game of chess in which each player/piece taken off the board is killed. Writer/showrunner David Weil uses arresting images of mechanical game-pieces on a chess board as episode openers but what dismayed Auschwitz staff was a chess board laid out on a concentration camp field peopled with real-life victims. ‘Death chess’ (below) was dubbed “dangerous foolishness and caricature” ...Auschwitz was full of horrible pain…we honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy”, say its reps.

Weil (below), whose own grandmother survived Auschwitz, says what wasn’t 100% true was in the vein of truth — it might-could have been true. He uses irony and satire to depict his 1970’s neon pop culture protagonists and villains contrasting them with life-like Holocaust flashbacks; the shift in tone and grayed-out color show the atrocities that impel the hunt. Hunters, Weil says, is a tribute to his own grandmother and meant to counter Holocaust revisionism; it’s a lesson to his own computer game generation for whom the story of the torture and industrialized murder of millions might be some old wives-tale lying in the dustbin of modern antisemitism.

My own reaction to this mish-mosh of jerky plotting and computer-game-ish nonsense ranged from annoyance to affection (I’ll take that Pacino Jewish Grandpa). If there’s a worry, it’s the goody-box of ideas it offers for rabid far-righters to imitate. But Hunters plain grew on me; it has lots of charm and wit, and serious importance enough to keep you going. In this case the bits and pieces outweigh the whole.

* mensch: man of honor, stalwart

**mezuzah: small rectangular box posted on doorways — it holds bible verses on a slip of parchment that follow the commandment ‘to write the words of God on the gates and doorposts of your house’

***mitzvah: good deed, commandment

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