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A Tarantino Purim?

February 28, 2010 – 8:35 pm3 Comments

By Liz Paratz

In the story of Purim, Haman is a clear descendant of Amalek and the ‘bad guy’. The mission conducted by Esther and Mordechai to expose Haman and save the Jews is completely successful and ultimately Haman and his ten sons are hung from the gallows that was intended for the Jews.

As one rabbi has put it, ‘the Book of Esther immortalizes the dream of the Exiled Jew, as it says in verse 9:1 ‘and it shall be turned to the contrary, so that the Jews shall conquer their enemies’.

So the story of Purim in this sense might be understood as a model for Jewish communities to aspire to in the Diaspora when confronted with anti-Semitism and genocidal tyrants. It’s an inspiring story where a brave Jewish girl confronts evil and saves the entire Jewish people without a single life being lost. And then the bad guy gets hung with his sons. As a Jewish revenge fantasy, it pre-dated Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds by a long way.

Many people today draw parallels between the Shoah and the story of Purim. Within this context, Haman and Hitler share not only a philosophy but even somewhat similar names. Furthermore, in the Nuremberg Trials 10 men were hanged, reminiscent of the hanging of Haman’s ten sons.

Even the fact they were all hanged on a simple wooden gallows is surprising, given that most executions in the 20th century tended to be a somewhat more modern matter of death by firing squad. However, even this detail echoed the executions of Purim.

Not only that, but the parallels become even more apparent when it is considered that in both cases there was an 11th person scheduled to be hanged (Haman’s daughter and Hermann Goering) who committed suicide right beforehand.

And then, to take things well over into the zone of eerie, it was documented in newspapers around the world that the last words of Julius Streicher, editor of the violently anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer, were ‘Purim Fest 1946’.

But unfortunately, as we all know, there is a major difference between Purim and the Shoah. While Esther’s acts saved all the Jews of Shushan, 6 million Jews perished in the Shoah.

Which is what brings us to the success of movies like Inglourious Basterds.

Does this movie cynically exploit our ‘Dream of the Exiled Jew, where the Jews conquer their enemies’? If we look closely, it seems that the movie deliberately reframes the tragedy of the Shoah as a Purim story.

Shoshana is clearly Esther. Like Queen Esther she masks her Jewish identity, posing as Emmanuelle Mimieux. She is chosen on account of her beauty to be the mistress (or ‘queen’) of Frederick Zoller, a young German military hero who is rather apolitical and neutral – in other words, an Ahashverosh figure.

However, he hangs out with some serious Amalekites – his boss Colonel Landa is known as ‘the Jew Hunter’, counts himself as a key architect of wiping out the Jews, and is bringing Hitler and other top Nazi officials to France for a night to celebrate their victories in WWII and their genocidal plans.

But brave Shoshana devises a plot, disguising herself as a French collaborator and turning the tables on the Nazis. At the last moment, the plot is reversed, and Hitler is trapped in a burning theatre where Shoshana reveals on a giant screen that she is in fact a Jew.

The plot of Inglourious Basterds seems to be so blatantly like the story of Purim that it almost conjures up an image of Tarantino reading the megillah, then growling, ‘Purim, I’ll raise you. How about Purim plus Brad Pitt and some scalpings?’

Maybe it’s that type of insight that makes an acclaimed director… knowing when a story that has been told for generations and generations just isn’t quite enough. Tarantino would seem to think that it’s good, but it needs some updating and some Basterds….

Chag sameach.

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  • frosh says:

    On the topic of adapting Megillat Esther to the theatre…
    Yesterday morning, I was one of a number of people who were privileged enough to hear Mark Symons read Megillat Esther.  For those who have not shared this privilege, Mark uses different voices/accents (and wears a different hat) for each and every character’s ‘speaking part.’ 
    Mark’s reading has been described by some as a “masterpiece”, and in my opinion, this is an appropriate description.
    As the reading progressed, it left me eagerly anticipating what voice would be provided to the next character to have their debut speaking part.
    As brilliant as Mark’s one man megillah show was, it got me thinking: How would Megillat Esther present as a stage play, if there was no alteration of the Megillah script?   
    I think it would be an interesting project, perhaps for a frum theatre group (there must be a few out there).  But be warned any actors auditioning for the part of Mordechai – contrary to what one might assume, he does not have much of a speaking part!

  • Stuart says:

    Thanks for that Frosh.
    Perhaps a play could be modelled on recent films of the book of Esther that a quick search came up with:
    One Night with the King
    The Bible Stories Esther

  • That’s a great comparison, Liz! Inglourious Basterds is one of my favourite films, but I never noticed the connection with the megillah, which seems obvious now that you point it out. I disagree, however, that Haman is a “clear” descendant of Amalek (the connection between “Haman the Agagite” and Agag from 1 Samuel is midrashic), and I’d also like to point out the fact that the execution of Haman and his sons was not necessarily on a gallows.
    The Hebrew verb + noun clause that denotes the manner of execution can either refer to execution on a gallows, impalement on a stake, or crucifixion (which was sometimes done with the hands above one’s head, and sometimes with the hands outstretched) on a cross or plank. Exactly what it refers to in any given instance is a matter of debate, which is compounded by the recognition that crucifixion in Israel/Palestine appears to have predated the Romans.
    These are minor points, which don’t affect your argument in any way, but I’m a pedant for these matters and I cannot resist :)

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