Why Amazon’s Nazi-Killing Show ‘Hunters’ Is So Much More Satisfying Than ‘Jojo Rabbit’
Creator David Weil opens up about how the new Amazon series was inspired by his Holocaust-survivor grandmother and why it was important to portray Jews as “mighty badasses.”
Hunters imagines a 1970s America in which Nazis—vanquished in World War II, but far from extinct—have covertly infiltrated every facet of domestic life, including Washington, D.C.’s corridors of power. That makes it an immensely timely tale about white nationalist terror and trauma, and the drastic measures individuals, and societies, must take to combat it. Yet while David Weil’s 10-part Amazon series (premiering Feb. 21) can sometimes be a grim affair about the physical and psychic scars left by the Holocaust on survivors and their descendants, it’s anything but depressing; on the contrary, in this thrilling and amusing saga, it’s the Nazis who receive the brunt of the brutal punishment, courtesy of Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), the leader of a multicultural crew of Nazi-hunting vigilantes determined to wipe out the remnants of the Third Reich with extreme prejudice.
With Meyer’s latest recruit Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) functioning as the viewers’ guide into this secret world, Hunters spins an outrageous pop culture-drenched yarn about vengeance and justice that’s indebted to everything from superhero comics and cartoons, to the Bible and movies such as The Boys from Brazil, Marathon Man, and Inglourious Basterds. It’s an alternate-history adventure overflowing with exploitation-cinema sizzle, profane comedy, and harrowing Holocaust terror. And credit for its expert balancing of those disparate tones goes to creator Weil, who drew upon his own family’s WWII experiences to craft this empowering story of Jews—and kindred marginalized minorities—striking back against their oppressors. Saturated with Jewish cultural and religious details that bolster its sense of righteous fury, it’s a Nazi-murdering period-piece fantasy that’s perfectly fit for our present moment.
Ahead of the stellar show’s debut, we had an in-depth chat with Weil about the personal origins of his series, partnering with executive producer Jordan Peele and the legendary Pacino (in his first TV-series role), and the catharsis that comes from seeing Hitler acolytes get what they deserve.
Hunters is about the urgent threat of domestic white nationalism—which, sadly, isn’t far-fetched these days. Did you have any idea the show would feel so relevant by the time it premiered?
I hoped that it wouldn’t. Growing up Jewish, the most scintillatingly evil form of anti-Semitism was casual anti-Semitism. I experienced it so much growing up. It could be as simple as a word about a Jew doing this, or as horrific as a joke about Jews in ovens that was directed toward me when I was in college, or a swastika being spray-painted on the sidewalk outside my high school in my very Jewish town, or going to temple with guards because of bomb threats. Larger society may not know about those things, but to me, they felt explosive, huge.
I think the unfortunate evolution of anti-Semitism over the past five years—I started writing this five years ago—is that that latent, casual form of anti-Semitism has metastasized, and these people now feel activated to exhibit and express it in ways that are incredibly violent and horrific: the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, or the supermarket massacre in Hoboken, or every day for five days in New York City in December when there was a violent anti-Semitic act. I sold this show even before Charlottesville, but unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more relevant.
Unlike a certain Oscar-celebrated film from last year, Hunters doesn’t make Nazis sympathetic, or turn them into endearing comic figures who, deep down, are good people. Did you feel it was vital, especially in this climate, to paint them as the historical villains they truly are?
It was incredibly vital. And I’ll go there: I absolutely adored Jojo Rabbit for many reasons, but my one big complication with it was that I felt like it portrayed the Nazis as buffoons. From Jojo’s point of view, I can understand that; that’s his experience, and we’re seeing it through his eyes. But in the more omniscient scenes, with the Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson characters—if those Nazi characters are buffoons, and they carried out genocide against millions of people, what does that make their victims? Do you see what I’m saying?
In portraying Nazis in this show, it was important to flesh them out. The biggest disservice we could do is create these Nazis as caricatures, or as one-dimensional. I didn’t want to humanize them, but they are also human beings, and the only way we can ever prevent an atrocity like the Holocaust from happening again is to understand that. I studied genocide in college, and my junior thesis was on the cognitive dissonance of perpetration. I read so many diary and journal entries and interviews with Nazi perpetrators in this bid to understand why they did what they did, and the psychology and sociology behind it. I think only in understanding them, and not glamorizing them, can we do something about the white supremacy, and Nazism and neo-Nazism, in our society today.
You have Nazis suffer some pretty horrific fates, which Meyer claims isn’t revenge but, rather, justice. Where is the boundary between the two?
I think the best thing a writer can do is always ask the question, in any show. The shows I like least are the ones in which I powerfully feel the thesis of the author or creator. I like shows where I’m the participant, and I can partake in that moral question. Writing Hunters, I came out understanding where I fall on the spectrum of, “Revenge is the best revenge” versus “Living well is the best revenge.” But I felt it was important to showcase our heroes questioning those things, to showcase the cost of that violence.
There’s this beautiful scene in episode eight between Al Pacino’s character, Meyer Offerman, and Simon Wiesenthal, who Judd Hirsch plays, in which the two men really debate: What is the responsibility of a Nazi hunter, and of a Jewish person? Is it to go the legal route, even if those institutions are stacked against us? Or is it to take justice into our own hands? They debate what it means to be Jewish, and what is right and what is wrong. That single scene is, for me, the centerpiece of the series.
Hunters is an extremely Jewish show, in terms of language, rituals, and other elements. Was that always a priority for you? And did that make it harder or easier to get it produced?
I think it made it easier to sell the show to the right person. [Head of Amazon Studios] Jen Salke, and Jordan Peele, have been such champions of the specificity and authenticity of the show. There were times when other producers were like, do we need to show the hora scene that’s in episode six, or do we need to show the rabbi coming to the home in episode five? Yes! I wanted to show the Jewish experience. I wanted to evoke in the show what I love about Atlanta. That’s clearly not my experience, but what I think Donald Glover was after was, what does it feel like to be black in America? So too did I want Hunters to feel like, what does it feel like to be Jewish in America? I really revere what Atlanta does, so it was that type of specificity and nuance. And also, it’s what Jordan does in all his work. I wanted to translate that great inspiration into the Jewish mode of storytelling.
And look, Amazon is great—with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and now Hunters, it’s a very Jewish network, and I love that! So frequently in the Holocaust oeuvre, whether it’s film or TV, Jews are solely portrayed as victims. It was just as important to show Jewish acts of rebellion, survivor acts of heroism, and Jewish acts of celebration. It’s not all mourning, it’s not all Yom Kippur; it’s also Simchat Torah and Sukkot and Rosh Hashanah. There’s so much life and beauty in the Jewish experience, it was really vital for me to express that as well.
Such Jewishness also lends authenticity to the show’s righteous anger. And that, in turn, is really unique—the sight of powerful, wrathful Jews retaliating against their Holocaust persecutors, which felt immensely cathartic to me.
It was essential to me too. Growing up as a Jewish kid in Long Island, there were two Jewish superheroes: Judah Maccabee and Jeff Goldblum [laughs]. There was no one else. So often, the media—and film—portray Jews as nebbishy, intellectual, ineffectual. It’s the Woody Allen mode. But we’re not a monolithic people, and it was exciting and vital for me to portray Jews as mighty badasses. That is a type of Judaism, and Jewish person, that we don’t often see portrayed.
Pacino using the “c” word to slander Nazis at the end of episode one epitomizes that sort of unrepentant, furious Jewish might.
We had conversations about everything; it was an incredibly thoughtful process, and there was so much push and pull. There’s a great deal of responsibility in telling this show, and telling it right, so we labored over every decision. Words like that, they should be reserved only for the most heinous, despicable, and evil of people. I think there’s certain language and acts of violence used throughout the show that feel cathartic and earned because of whom they’re carried out against.
To rewind a bit, what was the initial inspiration for the show?
The idea came from an incredibly personal place. My grandmother, Sarah Weil, was a Holocaust survivor, and growing up on Long Island, she would tell me and my brothers her story. I think she realized that defeating Hitler didn’t end anti-Semitism, so she saw her story as a weapon against hate; she saw it as a seed to inspire the next generation.
As I got older, just like she used her stories as weapons and seeds, I felt this responsibility, this legacy, this birthright, to continue her story in some way. After she passed—and so many of the survivor community is no longer with us—I think the onus is now on the descendants of survivors, and Jews everywhere, to continue the truths about what our ancestors went through, especially in the face of this epidemic of anti-Semitism and, in some ways, the more sinister epidemic of Holocaust denial.
There was urgency there. Hunters became my answer—it became this love letter to my grandmother, and this quest to continue her story, and to shed light on hidden crimes and secrets, like Operation Paperclip. In some cathartic wish-fulfillment sort of way, it was also a way to get justice—even in a fictionalized show—for survivors and anyone who feels “other” in a world that for so long has denied them justice.
How did Jordan Peele come aboard?
I was a huge fan of Key & Peele, and I asked my agent to introduce me to Jordan, who I just thought was a genius—this was even before Get Out. We met, and we really bonded over genre and horror movies, and writing, and everything. When Hunters was done, I sent it to him, because I thought he would really respond to it. I knew he was this type of superhero who had his finger on the pulse of culture, and pushed boundaries and told social thrillers, which is what Hunters really is to me. Plus, he’s a champion for underrepresented stories, and Hunters is that story. Jordan came onboard as an executive producer, and Monkeypaw Productions came on, and they’ve just been the greatest champions of the piece. Jordan really had his say with the writing and the visual style and the music—he’s just been so, so involved, and such an amazing mentor and leader to me. I’ve been so lucky, and I feel incredibly privileged to have that support.
We can’t go any further without talking about Al Pacino, who’s fantastic in the show. How did you convince him to sign on for his first TV series?
His agent called after reading the script and said, “I think there’s something in here that Al would really respond to.” What a surreal moment, to hear something like that! I met with Al, and we had four meetings together, and we talked through this character, and began to build it together. He really became a co-creator of this character. I also think he just wanted to see that we were collaborative people; that we were “yes, and”-ers. That we were real partners in the creative process. Because Al is an otherworldly artist. He eats, breathes and dreams his work. I’d wake up in the morning to an email from Al that he had a dream that, hey, can we try this or experiment with that? It became this amazing company of actors and writers and directors, and we would just experiment; for six months, it felt like we were evolving this beautiful play. He’s just so kind and humble, and a really magical person. And clearly, a magical artist.
There’s a lot of reality lurking beneath the show’s fictional alterna-history, as evidenced by the Huntsville, Alabama/NASA episode. Was part of the appeal here the ability to confront, and expose, unpleasant truths about Nazis in post-WWII America?
This only relates to the 1970s onward, but there were Nazis living among us, and yet we don’t know that there wasn’t also a band of Nazi hunters taking vengeance into their own hands; there could have been, and they were just never in the history books or the newspapers. However, certainly with the events of the Holocaust, there was no desire to create an alternate history. Preserving the truth—even if not always literal, but certainly representational truth of the past—was important. There is a version of this story that’s much more Munich, and there’s a version that’s much more Inglourious Basterds. The show, to me, lives somewhere in the middle, in more of a Marathon Man, The Boys from Brazil, Get Out sort of mode. I think it was important to be able to feel the wish fulfillment and the catharsis, but also to have the really important historical basis throughout.
As with the “Staying Alive” fantasy sequence, Hunters strikes an assured balance between fun, cartoony humor and horrifying Holocaust grimness. What guided your approach in melding those disparate tones?
The show expects a lot from the audience. The audience is certainly taken on a ride, but all of these different tones, to me, felt organic, in terms of the emotion and intellectual conversation I was trying to create with the show. Let me give you a more specific example. The beginning of episode two is the Hava Nagila bit in the camps, which to me is so somber and sobering, and shows Jewish defiance in a really bold way. Then a few minutes later, we’re in this bizarre bat mitzvah sequence in which we meet our hunters. I want the audience to feel jarred. If they were eased into this experience, I don’t think it would have the power and potency that it could have. Sometimes the show is meant to be uncomfortable; as a provocateur, I want to provoke the audience in that way. Moving between two tones can intentionally accentuate that discomfort.
There are superhero references sprinkled throughout, and Meyer and his vigilantes are themselves akin to superheroes. Was that a way to pay tribute to the central role Jews played in American comic-book history?
Yes, very much so. I’m the biggest fan of [Michael Chabon’s] The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and a student of Bob Kane, and all the great illustrators and authors, many of whom were Jewish and were coming back from a horrific WWII and wanting to create, in some way, an idealized version of woman and man. I hope, in some way, Hunters is a continuation and evolution of that story. So often in the Holocaust oeuvre, we see Jews as being persecuted, and violence being perpetrated against them. But the Jewish experience is a very hopeful and beautiful one. Even though we do see Jewish death in this show, it was vital to me that we show Jewish life and celebration. There’s a wedding in episode six, and going into this show, I was like, I need a four-minute hora scene! Al Pacino’s in it, and it’s just glorious, and it feels so good and cathartic and beautiful.
Meyer leads a diverse group of exploitation cinema-style heroes, all of whom are outsiders. Was that a way to illustrate how, in some fundamental respect, Jews are kindred spirits with other persecuted minorities?
Historically, there was sometimes tension between Jewish and black communities in America, and that was all because of white supremacists who ran the government and society that wanted to pit groups against each other. One thing I wanted to express with this show is a shared sense of persecution of otherness. Now look, as a Jewish person, I benefit greatly from white privilege, so the Jewish and black experiences are not identical. But there are certain things about the Jewish experience, the black experience, the gay experience, the Japanese-American experience—as Joe Mizushima (Louis Ozawa) exhibits in the show—that are similar.
The white supremacism of the United States that inspired the Nazi regime, and the white supremacism of the Nazi regime that in turn inspired white supremacist movements in the States—and this continual disgusting chicken-and-the-egg cycle—is something that is felt by many, many people. What was important and exciting to me in creating this diverse band of hunters is that, in some ways, even if not directly and specifically affected by the Holocaust, all of these people—and all of us—are affected by systems, and societal norms, of white supremacy in America and around the world. I think it’s this larger message of: we are not so different. If we team up as this shared family, we can combat hate, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.
Do you have plans for future seasons, should the show be renewed?
I have at least five seasons’ worth of stories inside of me that I really want to tell. I’m very, very hopeful that Amazon renews us for a second season. I’m just so excited to get back in the ring and tell even more stories of hope and rebellion and triumph.