"You have to pay one day for the crimes you have committed."
Fascinating, exciting documentary series...but I would have like some more bio on the hunters, too. MVD Visual has released Nazi Hunters, a two-disc collection of eight episodes from the 2010 Canadian-Brazilian TV series that aired on History. Top-flight production values and speedy exposition are the pluses here, with a welcome focus on some notorious Nazis butchers that don't readily come to mind. The episodes included here are: Herbert Cukurs, Adolph Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, Erich Priebke, Joseph Mengele, Kurt Kischka, Paul Touvier, Gustav Wagner / Stranz Strangl. However, that speed doesn't leave a lot of room for more in-depth analysis of the hunters themselves. No extras for these sharp-looking transfers.
Following a fairly standard cable documentary format TV viewers have become accustomed to over the past 15 or 20 years now, Nazi Hunters' episodes utilize newsreel footage, first-person accounts, narration, expert opinion (Guy Walters, author of Hunting Evil, appears in every episode), still photos, and re-created dramatizations to tell the stories of the Nazi murderers who fled Germany (many of them to sympathetic South America), seemingly safe in their new post-war occupations...only to be hunted down by dedicated individuals (often without government help) who wanted justice for the tens and hundreds of thousands and even millions of people these men were personally responsible for killing. After decades of countless WWII cable docs―so much so that not too long ago, History was commonly referred to by fans as The Hitler Channel―it's going to take a little something extra for a new one to make a fan sit up and take notice.
Nazi Hunters achieves this through its ultra-slick presentation. Shot in digital widescreen, the producers of the series put a premium on production values, with eye-catching fast cuts, zooms and split-screens rapidly interspersed with the gorgeously-shot re-creations that help to convey a palpable sense of excitement over the pursuit of these villains. Period detail within the re-creations are carefully correct, while the direction never lets up, with each episode of Nazi Hunters shot like a fictional thriller. Tellingly, the producers are careful to include poignant, often ghastly first-hand accounts from Holocaust and WWII survivors so that the suspenseful, exciting details of the hunt are grounded in a somber reality: these pursuits are often exhilarating and personally satisfying for the hunters (and the voyeuristic viewer)...but the horrifying deaths of millions are behind these chases we the TV audience "enjoy" from the safety and security of our armchairs.
And to that end of bringing about justice for the victims and their memories, Nazi Hunters is nicely unapologetic about the zeal of its hunters; as someone states during the first episode, the complacent Nazis, so sure in their supposed anonymity, were fearing for their lives for once, as news traveled through the Nazi expatriate ranks when Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the "Final Solution," was spirited away from Argentina to Israel, where he was hanged for his crimes in 1960. In the opening episode, Herbert Cukurs, the re-creation shows a brutal fight the Mossad (Israeli Intelligence) agents had in bringing down Cukurs, including using a gun and a hammer to kill him, before they stuffed him in a box for the Uruguayan officials to find. Nazi Hunters even shows us a grisly photo of Cukurs' body when it was discovered. Those who feel this is gratuitous or goes too far should remember how often we've all seen the newsreel footage of the Holocaust victims' bodies, un-human-looking in their desiccation, as they're bulldozed into their burial pits. If we can't forget how they looked after the "Final Solution," we should then also see their tormentors' ultimate fate.
Of the episodes here, I found the Herbert Cukurs one the most intriguing, with the depth of detail the filmmakers reveal in how long it actually took for the Mossad operation to come off, providing an eye-opening look into "real" espionage work. Cukurs, the "Hangman of Riga," was living in Brazil when Mossad agent "Anton Kuenzle" (an alias, apparently), headed up a team to assassinate him. Espionage and spy fans will no doubt be enthralled by the decidedly un-cinematic reality of how this was accomplished, with weeks and years of dull prep work by the agents resulting in an incredibly tense few final days before the operation went ahead. "Kuenzle," in particular, is a fascinating figure, a self-described "non-descript" everyman on a "holy mission" to avenge his murdered parents, who used his anti-James Bond looks to essentially disappear into the woodwork when it came to the operation.
On the other hand...turgid Sam Donaldson of mainstream media infamy, is a decidedly uninteresting "Nazi hunter" in the Erich Priebke episode. Coming off like a pompous hot-shot looking for a "gotcha" moment for his show's ratings rather than a true crusader seeking justice, Donaldson's few hours of jetting in and out of Argentina to stick a microphone in Priebke's face seems clownish after we've seen the arduous legwork put in by research stringer Dalila Herbst, a Jewish Argentinean who was the "real" Nazi hunter here. I would have liked a lot more info on her, and her story, rather than listening to Donaldson lugubriously pontificate about how important he was to the operation. That might be Nazi Hunters' biggest drawback: looking closely at the chase, as exciting as it is...while sometimes leaving behind the hunter. Most problematic of this was the depiction in several episodes of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, famous "Nazi hunters" with checkered pasts of their own. There's no denying that these passionate justice-seekers did the world a service by tracking down and bringing to the courts their Nazi prey, but Nazi Hunters isn't interested in looking too closely at their motivations and mistakes, with the more embarrassing details of their pursuits (most notably, Beate's activities sponsored by the notorious East German Communist government) conveniently left out. I didn't want Nazi Hunters to be an attack on Sam Donaldson or Beate Klarsfeld, but I would have enjoyed this exciting series even more if it had presented its hunters in a more rounded, in-depth manner.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.