Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
Disclaimer: an unholy slew of cultural references will follow.
The thought of Al Pacino as an Ashkenazi Jewish-accented Holocaust survivor made my sister not want to watch the new Amazon Prime show, Hunters, about Nazi-hunters in the late 70s, produced by Jordan Peele. She loves Peele, but didn’t like Pacino as Hoffa in The Irishman, and also, in a nod to identity politics, she wondered why they didn’t get a real Jew to play Nazi- hunting millionaire Meyer Offerman.
There’s a lot about the show that doesn’t work, and a lot that does. Pacino’s accent is not horrible. Saul Rubinek’s ebbs and flows. Carol Kane’s is perfect in a way I don’t understand why Rubinek’s isn’t. Josh Mostel, son of Zero, not Zoro, who played King Herod in the film of Jesus Christ Superstar – “prove to me that you’re no fool/walk across my swimming pool” – is perfect as Carol and Saul’s rabbi, although the writing doesn’t rise to the level of the performances. German actress Barbara Sukowa, who played Rosa Luxemburg in Margarethe von Trotta’s not- great biographical film of the Jewish anarchist, is featured in an episode as a possibly-wrongly executed possible Nazi.
Why this show? Why now? Because Nazis are coming out of the woodwork, all over the world, acting like “Nazi” is a valid lifestyle choice, and, somehow, whether or not it’s all right to punch them has been a persistent moral question. And that’s the big moral question of the show: is it all right to kill Nazis three decades after they committed their Naziness? Or does, as Nietzsche had it, the abyss gaze back into you? Do you turn into a monster if you hunt monsters and kill them? Another current show, The October Faction, tackles this question, and answers that, yes, monsters are people, too, and going around killing them is immoral. At least, it is in a world where monsters are people, too.
But those are vampires, warlocks and such. Not Nazis. In Hunters, the Nazis are irredeemable monsters. Mustache-twirling monsters. Obvious in their evil, evil in their declared ambitions. There’s even an idealized “Proud Boy” style monster. It’s a relevant show! It’s not anywhere as good as HBO’s Watchmen, though. I’m not even sure Hunters is good at all. I think the question of whether it’s good or bad is left ambiguous, like the question of whether killing Nazis makes you as bad as a Nazi. There’s some cleverness to all the ambiguity, but not much.
I’ll tell you a few things I don’t like about the show: I think it’s pretty ignorant about Jewish culture. There’s some beloved chicken soup in the story made by someone’s beloved Saftah, although why they use the Hebrew word for grandmother rather than the Yiddish is never explained. The characters aren’t Israeli. But, whatever. Anyhow, beloved Saftah’s beloved chicken soup is a character in itself, a bygone, mourned, treasured friend of blessed memory. But the soup looked like crap to me. I wouldn’t eat it. The broth was too clear. It had no golden hue, not even slightly. It looked like chicken, parsley, and pimento in spring water. I resent that chicken soup being cast as a real Jewish chicken soup. That’s a goyishe food stylist’s whitewashed image of chicken soup.
Another thing I hate is that the characters call every monstrous person a “golem.” “Golem” has a very specific meaning. A golem is a protector who gets out of control. Tony Soprano, if he maybe does you a favor, and you in return owe him a favor, and the plot spins off the rails for your character, that’s a Golem. A Nazi doctor is not a golem.
Also, like I said, Josh Mostel, son of Zero, is very good in the show. But he tells a story that’s supposed to be like an aggada or a fable, and it goes nowhere. And yes, many aggadot go nowhere, it’s true, but as a writer you have your choice of good ones. Or you could at least choose to have your characters tell their stories well. We get the point, but it isn’t delivered effectively, and it’s clearly the writer’s fault, the actors are acting on all cylinders. This is a flaw throughout the show. Characters attempt puns or quips or wise sayings, and they’re just not wise or quippy enough.
Back to the point of the so-called moral question: why has it been so unendurably durable in the past three years, this question of how to react to Nazis? It’s tempting to answer, “How should I know? I’ve wanted to crush Donald Dump’s skull by slowly, one by one, stacking cast-iron dunce caps on it, ever since he took office.”
But we must leave aside the visceral, teeth-gnashing impulse to stab and stab and stab. The daily realization that Donald Dump is president, which strikes me every day anew with the blunt force of anaphylactic shock, makes me gnashy and stabby in my jaw and fists. But that’s my emotions talking, not my reason. Still, my reason doesn’t tell me that I need to spend any time weighing the moral considerations of punching Nazis, or killing them, or torturing them to death, or stabbing a corpulent racist, or crushing his cranium with iron hats.
Even though it officially ended 75 years ago, the Nazi project to exterminate people is still offensive to me. Go figure. I guess I’m just a tender snowflake.
Maybe the show’s point is that, yes, you should really kill Nazis at every opportunity, but just be aware that it will turn you into a monster. It’s morally right to make that choice, but, y’know, that’s what happens. There’s no true hero that doesn’t become an anti-hero, by the very nature of true heroism.
You’ll notice I don’t criticize the show’s lack of subtlety. The show’s been panned mainly for that lack. I find it an objection that’s grown tiresome.
There’s a line from an FBI unit chief in the show, advising an agent to lie to get a search warrant: “You get comfortable with being uncomfortable with your conscience.” It’s a good line, especially coming from a law enforcement officer, as a statement about the questionable morality of moral flexibility.
An article in The Atlantic complains, of course, about the show’s lack of subtlety: “There’s no subtlety to be found here; no contemporary insight into the alienation, disempowerment, and fear of ‘the other’ that might compel weak people to embrace such banal veneration of power.”
I like that the writer tries to evoke Hannah Arendt a little bit there and fails. Too subtle, writer!
And as you read that Atlantic article, you skip over a link between paragraphs that promises to tell you that, “‘Jojo Rabbit’ Is a Fraught Tonal Experiment.” I don’t need to read anything in the Atlantic about Jojo Rabbit. It’s not a tonal experiment, it’s a perfect sardonic satire. “Oooo, it’s an experiment! It’s so weird!” Shut up. Read Evelyn Waugh or Muriel Spark, doofus. Get a clue. It’s like when Paul McCartney listened to the Beach Boys and discovered via Brian Wilson that a bass line doesn’t always need to go to the root note of the chord. Yeah, maybe you could’ve listened to, say, Mozart, and found that out.
Anyway, any show that plays the Werner von Braun song by Tom Lehrer under the beginning of a scene has at least a hint of greatness, even if it’s someone else’s greatness. And, yes, it’s played under a scene with Werner von Braun in it! How’s that for lack of subtlety?
You know what’s not subtle? “Beowulf.” It’s about a hero who goes after a monster. And, you know, it’s Medieval. The Middle Ages aren’t famous as a time of morally complex thought. At least, it’s not emphasized in their brochures. And yet, the titular hero of “Beowulf” is implicated in sin – it’s clear he makes a sacrifice, risking his soul by using a sinful weapon to defeat his final enemy. It’s the same point in Hunters: go ahead and kill the monster, but be aware that, by doing so, you sacrifice your innocence.
What’s all the fetishizing of subtlety, anyway? I think it’s related to the anti-Bernie reaction in the Democratic Party. Many are the tweets by genteel bougie moderates declaring, unsubtly, that they’re put off by the yelling of the Jew, his unstylish suits and hair, and his endless unvarnished harping on the evils of evil. Can’t he couch his rhetoric in less provocative policy discussions that will subtly, softly, gradually guide us, in the fullness of time, to something maybe in the neighborhood of, or perhaps a short trip across town from, justice? Sure, we all want justice, but not noisy, Jewy justice in my back yard.
I’m not sure, but I have an instinct, that subtlety is wasted on the greedy, the selfish, the über- wealthy, the tribally racist, the nationalistically fascistic, and the cavalier destroyers of the planet. And subtlety is definitely wasted on Nazis.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!