The following contains spoilers for Hunters.
In the new Amazon Prime series Hunters, Al Pacino and Logan Lerman lead an underground team of assassins and investigators on the trail of Nazis living, working, and plotting in the United States circa 1977. While many of the show’s Nazi villains — played by great actors such as Dylan Baker and Lena Olin — are fictional creations, in episode 8 (“The Jewish Question”) of the 10-part series we are introduced to a real-life German figure out of history: Wernher von Braun.
Played here by veteran TV actor Victor Slezak, von Braun was a leading — if not the leading — aerospace engineer for Nazi Germany’s rocket development program during the heyday of the Third Reich. Following the Allied victory over Germany, von Braun was one of around 1,600 other German scientists and engineers who were secretly shipped to the U.S. — where he worked on our own rocket and space programs at the behest of the U.S. government.
The plan to bring Germans over to work for the U.S. was called Operation Paperclip, which figures prominently in Hunters. “Operation Paperclip was a real life operation that the United States government deployed at the end of World War II,” says Hunters creator and co-executive producer David Weil.
“They basically took thousands of German engineers and scientists and brought them to America,” continues Weil. “Many of them were Nazi war criminals or even Nazi leaders, and they placed them in small towns and big cities. The U.S. government whitewashed their files. The government put these Nazis at the helm of our space program, of different scientific programs and engineering programs, so that they could beat the Soviets in the arms race.”
Weil, whose grandmother survived the German camps during the Holocaust and whose stories were the primary inspiration for the show, says he holds a special “fury” over von Braun. “There’s still a basketball arena in Alabama named after him and he was a Nazi war criminal,” says Weil. “He ran a factory that employed Jewish slave labor and was part of the Nazi party, then he came to America and was on Walt Disney’s TV shows and led a life of celebrity and fame and riches.”
Indeed, thanks to his efforts in creating the vehicle that transported U.S. astronauts to the Moon, von Braun was inducted in 1967 into the National Academy of Engineering and received the National Medal of Science in 1975 (several institutes in Huntsville, Alabama, where he founded the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, are named after him, as is a crater on the Moon). Although the real scientist died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 65, he meets a much different fate in Hunters, as Pacino’s lead Nazi hunter, Meyer Offerman, orders his death by a bullet to the head.
“He was never indicted,” says the soft-spoken Weil with a slight edge in his voice. “He was never brought to justice. So this show is the opportunity to do that, and to shed light on his real legacy.”
Hunters is available to stream now on Amazon Prime now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye