Depicting violence on screen is a tricky line to walk, but its impact is incredibly important
Whether we want to admit it or not, everyone is looking to be represented on screen to some degree. When we see people who look, behave, and think like us on screen, it validates our own experiences of the world.
As a cis, white Jew, I feel fairly well-represented by mainstream media. I grew up on all the Ashkenazi classics like Fiddler on the Roof and Seinfeld, and as an adult, I have my “problematic faves” in Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Schmidt from New Girl. Yet, despite seeing a good amount of myself on screen, when I heard about the new Amazon Original, Hunters, I was immediately intrigued.
Hunters chronicles a fictional ragtag gang of Nazi-hunters in 1970s New York City who are brought together in response to Operation Paperclip, the astonishingly real U.S. program which scrubbed the records of Nazi scientists in order to bring them to work on the space race. Many of the Nazi-hunters in the show are Holocaust survivors. And as the descendant of survivors, I have become so sick of survivors’ depictions only ever being helpless, feeble victims. Also, it had been over a decade since the release of Inglorious Basterds, and with the rise of the alt-right around the world, it felt like the perfect time for another piece of mainstream kickass anti-fascist media. Yet, sadly, I quickly realized Hunters would not be that.
From the get-go, I was struck by an onslaught of intense depictions of Holocaust violence in Hunters. It seemed like every third scene was a flashback to the camps, and every one involving more stylized killing than the last. Very few of these scenes even served the narrative as a whole. Additionally, I was jarred by the now heavily criticized scene in which the show depicts a completely fabricated “human chess game” run by Nazi guards at a concentration camp. This scene was so gratuitous and removed from reality that the Auschwitz Museum tweeted that it was “dangerous foolishness and caricature.”
So, if this sensationally violent chess game never actually happened, why depict it in a show based on the true events surrounding Operation Paperclip?
In my opinion, the unnecessary use of violence in Hunters exists to convince viewers of why the gang is in the right for hunting Nazis. The perception is that non-Jewish audiences need to be reminded of the atrocities of the Holocaust in order to understand the anger felt by the Jewish and otherwise racialized characters in the show. That is a major problem that lies within this show and many other historical dramas. These narratives are expecting their viewers to be apathetic. The baseline feeling is indifference, and viewers must be moved to anti-racism, rather than anti-racism being the default.
While some effective anti-racist media can exist to “convert” people and bring them over from a bigoted point of view to understanding, that should not be the majority of the content that is being made. When mainstream film and TV narratives expect their audiences to be antisemetic, for example, it perpetuates the idea that people are by default antisemetic and must learn to be accepting, rather than the reality that antisemitism, racism, homophobia and so on are learned ideologies. Thus, antisemitism, racism, and homophobia are thought of as “making sense.” Audiences should not need to be convinced why Nazis are the “bad guys.” And by using so much gratuitous violence to make that point, it opens up the possibility of bad faith, “both sides” arguments.
How to properly depict historical violence on screen is a difficult line to walk. On one hand, you don’t want to sanitize history and belittle the real horror experienced by many. Yet, you also don’t want to use violence in a way that dips into the waters of fetishism and exploitation.
This has been an ongoing conversation most notably when it comes to depicting slavery in the United States on film. The response to the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave exemplifies this issue. As Katarina Hedrén writes for Africa is a Country, some critics believed the film to be a “horror show” and devoid of the history of slave revolt and others believed it white washed history through having a “happy ending.” The debate over the use of historical violence in film is not an easy one to maneuver, but it is an important conversation to have regardless.
Ultimately, when writers insert unnecessary violence into their projects, it makes it more difficult for viewers to connect to their characters. No one wants to see themselves as the victim time and time again. Once I finished Hunters, though I had absolutely no business watching past the first episode (but hey, COVID boredom), I recognized that even though Hunters was about Jews, it wasn’t for us. I know the terrible history of violence my people have been put under since, well, the written word. I don’t need to see dozens of depictions of it on screen to understand. I just wish there were more narratives that show a more empowered image.
Graphic by Rose-Marie Dion