NEW YORK (JTA) — “This is not murder, this is mitzvah.”
That’s a quote from Meyer Offerman, a wealthy Holocaust survivor with a thick Yiddish accent played by Al Pacino, in the first episode of Amazon Studios’ “Hunters,” a hyped new show about a diverse band of Nazi hunters in 1970s New York City that debuts Friday on the streaming service.
The blood-soaked series boasts a cast packed with Jewish actors, many with close personal connections to the Holocaust. Those actors say they are looking forward to having viewers join them in grappling with the ethical puzzle embedded in Meyer’s quote.
“The center of the series really revolves around the moral, ethical question about ‘Does it take evil to fight evil? Do you have to be a bad guy in order to effectively combat the bad guys?’” Logan Lerman, who plays the show’s protagonist Jonah Heidelbaum, says in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “I’m really curious to see what people’s responses are.”
The show, which was co-produced by Jordan Peele — the acclaimed writer and director behind the horror blockbusters “Get Out” and “Us” — whirls into motion after Jonah’s grandmother is murdered in her Brooklyn apartment. Jonah’s quest to discover the perpetrator brings him into contact with Meyer, who has assembled an “Ocean’s 11”-style team with members whose specialties range from combat to disguise. Jonah fits in immediately as a code-breaker because of his ability to recognize written patterns.
Meyer informs Jonah — one of multiple Jewish members of the squad — that there are many Nazis hiding in plain sight throughout the country. In fact, in the show’s world, there is a large Nazi network that plans to establish a “Fourth Reich.” The hunters set to work to dismantle it, and they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty (and very bloody) along the way.
The show imagines an alternate history in which some of the thousands of Nazis and Nazi collaborators who made their way to the U.S. after World War II maintained their Nazi identities rather than hiding them. (It’s Amazon’s second alternate Nazi history drama following “The Man in the High Castle.”) Simon Wiesenthal’s famous Nazi-hunting organization also was established in 1977, the year the show takes place.
But the series also draws from the graphic violent style of Quentin Tarantino — his 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds” is arguably the most famous in the Jews-killing-Nazis genre — as well as comic book culture. There are numerous comic book character jokes and references: At one point Lonny Flash, a member of the gang played by Josh Radnor, calls Jonah, who in fact works at a comic book store, a “real life f***ing Jew-perhero.”
Creator David Weil said that his first and main inspiration was his grandmother, who survived imprisonment in the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, and whom Weil said he used to see as a superhero while growing up in a Conservative Jewish family on Long Island.
“It is a love letter to my grandmother, it is a way to honor my birthright and my heritage and my Judaism, and it’s a way to shed light on hidden crimes and secrets,” Weil tells the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” an epic drama about Mossad agents who seek to retaliate against the Palestinians responsible for the “Munich Massacre” at the 1972 Olympics, was another influence looming large in Weil’s mind.
The show offers two arguments for the need for violent Jewish revenge — one is the biblical eye-for-an-eye means of paying back the Nazis for the suffering they caused. The show is full of flashbacks to scenes of chilling Nazi atrocities, such as a chess match that SS officers play involving real prisoners, who are forced to kill each other as the game progresses.
“The Talmud is wrong. Living well is not the best revenge,” Meyer tells Jonah in episode one. “You know what the best revenge is? Revenge.” (The “living well” axiom is actually attributed to a 17th-century British poet and priest.)
The other argument is one of self-defense. As the hunters torture a Nazi by blaring loud music into his ears, Jonah urges them to stop — he is clearly conflicted by inflicting pain on someone else. But the goal of the torture is to extract information about who else the Nazi might be working with in order to stop a possible plot that could harm Jews and others.
“If ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is one end of the spectrum, and ‘Munich’ is the other end of the spectrum, I think ‘Hunters’ lives in the middle,” Weil says.
Weil also says he felt an urge to create “badass” Jewish characters.
“Growing up, I had two Jewish superheroes — there was Judah Maccabee and Jeff Goldblum, and very few people in between,” he says. “And so to be able to show a Jewish superhero with might, with power, with strength, not just a Jew who is as the media often portrays us, as ineffectual or intellectual only or nebbishy … that was so important to me.”
In separate conversations, the Jewish actors who worked on the show all said they were undecided on how they feel about the idea of revenge.
Veteran actress Carol Kane, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1976 for playing a Jewish immigrant in “Hester Street,” plays Polish immigrant and weapons expert Mindy Markowitz. She admits that she was shocked by parts of the script.
“I really thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s really a huge moral question,’” Kane, who believes some of her Russian and Austrian relatives died in the Holocaust, says about the show’s violence.
After a long pause, she adds: “I still don’t know. I have not made up my mind. In general in the world I feel that forgiveness leads to a better world, but this particular circumstance is so completely unforgivable. I really don’t know the answer.”
Josh Radnor, the star of the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” avoids the issue, saying instead that he thinks the show works to break common stereotypes about Jews.
“I think it’s the audience’s job, and the job of journalists and thinkpiece writers, to grapple with those bigger questions,” Radnor says.
Lerman, best known as the star of the “Percy Jackson” movies, says something similar. He notes, however, that his family’s complicated Holocaust history — relatives on his father’s side ended up in China and Mexico — added to his work on the show.
“I can’t tell you that I have a specific opinion,” Lerman says. “I think that the question is complicated and nuanced and one for audiences for debate after completing the first season.”
The cast members do agree enthusiastically on at least one thing: the brilliance of Pacino, who stayed in character, with a thick Yiddish accent, for the six-plus months of filming.
“Hearing him talk about ‘Serpico’ in a Yiddish accent was pretty hilarious,” Radnor says. “He’s a toweringly great artist.”