The opening credits to Hunters, the new Amazon Prime Video series that debuted late February, portray a chessboard lined with figurines of the main characters staring each other down. Chess is a central theme of the show. It appears literally, in people’s homes, and also metaphorically, as underground Nazis and secret Nazi hunters vie to stay at least one step ahead of each other in a gritty 1970s New York.
In one early scene, chess even figures grotesquely: in a flashback to Auschwitz, Nazi guards use Jews to play human-sized games of chess. Sobbing prisoners would be murdered when they were removed from the board. It’s a ludicrous scene, and when I watched it, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.
That reaction has not been universal. The Auschwitz Memorial publicly condemned the show on Twitter, writing, “Auschwitz was full of horrible pain and suffering documented in the accounts of survivors. Inventing a fake game of human chess for Hunters is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature. It also welcomes future deniers. We honour the victims by preserving factual accuracy.”
It’s a fair point, but also disregards the fundamental fact that Hunters is a uniquely stupid show.
I don’t even mean that as an insult. I mean Hunters is so playfully, self-consciously, bombastically stupid that no one could possibly confuse it with real life, and no Holocaust denier could plausibly leverage it as proof without being laughed out of whatever smelly basement they’ve gathered in.
If anything, Hunters faces the opposite problem. It’s so absurd it has to emphasize – all but screaming at the audience – when it portrays things that actually happened.
To wit: at one point mid-season, the show cuts to a fake commercial for Huntsville, Ala., where secret Nazis are gleefully pretending to be hillbillies. It’s a goofy representation of the hideousness of Operation Paperclip, a real-life U.S. plan to snag Nazi scientists away from Soviet influence in the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War. After inventing rockets that killed thousands during the war, those same Germans helped America win the Space Race.
“Come to Huntsville, Alabama,” the pseudo-commercial’s narrator declares, “home to the Space and Rocket Center, staffed by Nazi scientists smuggled here by your government. Oh yeah – it really happened!”
The subtext: most everything else in this show is made-up nonsense. Fun nonsense, sure, but definitely nonsense.
The show’s lunacy raises the question of whether it’s even any good. Honestly, that is a difficult question. Hunters tries to be everything to everyone: pulpy revenge porn ripped from Quentin Tarantino’s playbook; an homage to 1970s ass-kicking stereotypes (kung fu, blaxploitation, etc.); a sombre reflection on the gritty realities of the Shoah; a Cold War spy thriller; a screwball comedy starring Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek as a delightful kvetching couple who also happen to be explosives experts; a vehicle for Al Pacino (honorary Jew in my books) to thicken his Yiddish accent as the leader of the underground Nazi hunters; a strikingly Semitic adaptation of Revenge of the Nerds; a comic-book superhero story; a parable debating the moral virtues of ethical actions in the face of pure evil; and on, and on, and on.
In short: the show is a lot. It also feels extremely long – the pilot alone is 90 minutes, and every subsequent episode is a full hour – which is dizzying. But it is also easily Amazon’s most Jewish show, a formidable title for a streaming network that brought us The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Transparent.
Watch it for entertainment if you’re curious. Just don’t watch it for accuracy. And not even historical accuracy: that chess game during the opening credits? It’s not even really a chess game. On both sides, Jews and Nazis approach each other head-to-head on the chessboard, shifting one space forward at a time. That’s not how chess is played. That’s just a mindlessly fun brawl.