Masters at the Movies
The Pawnbroker: Holocaust, Memory, and Film
Richard Stites, January 2008
I have been using films in courses for a number of years—on Russian popular culture; the United States and the USSR in the 20th century; and, most recently, Europe in World War II: History and Film, designed as a pro-seminar for first-year students in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Except for a few clips, I use full-length films, mostly fiction features ranging from black-and-white ones of the 1930s to more recent releases from Germany, Russia, and the United States. Only with the complete film can the student get a real sense of the story, the characters, and the historical content. I have a block of two two-hour classes in a media room. I usually give a lecture on a Tuesday and we watch the film on Thursday. For longer films, I shorten the Tuesday lecture and start the film showing which is completed on Thursday—with some time set aside for discussion. This is supplemented with short papers integrating lectures, films, and readings. The final research paper requires work at the Library of Congress and/or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Research Center. Judging from feedback, this has been the most successful course of my 48-year teaching career.1
Although the course ranges far and wide over various campaigns and home fronts, the Holocaust plays a key role, from the first weeks (a clip from Der ewige Jude, followed by The Wannsee Conference and Schindler's List) to the last film, Judgement at Nuremburg. Needless to say, other films, such as The Pianist, would make a good fit. Since my course is not on the Holocaust per se, it does not address the experience of survival after the war, and for that reason I want to talk about a film that is in my view the most moving depiction of that experience, superior even to another fine treatment of the theme, Sophie's Choice.
I have chosen the American film, Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964). Why? Because until the release of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List in 1993, which now tops my list, I considered Lumet's the finest American fiction feature movie ever made about the Holocaust and, as I hope to demonstrate, belongs in any course on the Holocaust where film is used. The story centers around Sol Nazerman, a New York pawnbroker and Holocaust survivor. His searing experience in Europe and the loss of his wife and children have left him bereft of human sympathy—an embittered, heartless shell of a man. In and out of his shop come down-and-out ghosts of Harlem's underlife—an abandoned pregnant girl, drug addicts, Caribbean hooligans, déclassé white folks on the skids, a pitiful self-educated black man. Nazerman treats them all with icy indifference and wards off the sympathetic attentions of his Puerto Rican shop assistant and a well-meaning social worker. Tragedy again assaults him at the end as new evil forces beyond his control—personified by a pimp played by the magnificent Brock Peters, fresh from To Kill a Mockingbird—conspire to bring violence into his life and transform him into a full human being once again.
Pawnbroker—a New York film, a memory film, and a Holocaust film—lights up the screen on many levels: acting, direction, sets, music (by Quincy Jones), and especially cinematography.2 As to the last, Lumet had previously teamed up with cameraman Boris Kaufman in Twelve Angry Men (1957). Kaufman was one of three talented brothers who made silent movies in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. One brother, Mikhail, played the title role in the Moscow documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929); the director of that film was the third brother who adopted the name Dziga Vertov. While Vertov went on to became one of the world's leading experimental documentary filmmakers and theoreticians, Boris Kaufman emigrated to the United States. He did not carry with him the fast-cutting montage of that early Soviet era. Instead he worked in a gritty realistic mode. Two moments in Pawnbroker, among many, stand out for sheer visual evocation: the low-angle camera shot of the lawnmower brought in to be pawned by petty crooks and the gloomy panorama of dawn over Manhattan—a scene whose desperation is matched visually only by the alcoholic's tortured trek through the city in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945).
Rod Steiger, already eminent for his role in On the Waterfront (1954), here renders his finest performance, reaching a dramaturgical and psychological climax in a monologue where, in "teaching" his young ambitious helper about money, he launches into an impassioned capsule history of his people. "You begin with several thousand years during which you have nothing except a great, bearded legend," doomed to a peripatetic mercantile existence. In this shocking sequence, Nazerman opens his bitter sermon in a professorial tone, rises in frenzy, and ends with a guttural screaming of the epithets applied to the Jew down through the ages—"a sheeny, a mockie, and a kike." The scene can be disturbing, even offensive, to Jew and Gentile alike—and yet it is essential in etching Nazerman's pain and isolation in the form of historical consciousness.3
The actual scenes of the Holocaust—restrained and stylized—all appear in flashback. This is where the emotional power of the film is at its strongest. The memory of a single survivor, stripped of piety and self-pity, has turned him into a twisted though less lethal and totally nonideological version of his cruel persecutors. He is immune to the suffering around him. As he begins to realize the delusions under which he is living, the anguish deepens—cleverly enhanced by the oft-used device of flashing light from his eyeglasses and at the tragic end by a wordless scream of pain that artists and filmmakers have been employing since the time of Goya.
The film has nothing to say about Hitler or the Nazis as political phenomena. It tracks the impact of horror on a Jewish survivor in America 15–20 years after the event. By the mid-1950s, as two eminent historians have argued, most American Jews, having lost no immediate family in that European tragedy, were thriving; and public expressions of anti-Semitism were taboo.4 Holocaust memory, though never dead, had been driven deep into the consciousness, and writing creatively about it remained an agonizing task.5 Putting it on screen still posed a challenge to a Hollywood whose largely Jewish magnates had almost always shied away from Jewish themes in their movies.6
In those years, the writer Edward Louis Wallant had been sitting in a relative's pawnshop observing its ways. And while studying at the Pratt Institute in New York, he met a survivor of the death camps.7 His 1961 novel, The Pawnbroker, became the basis for Lumet's film. Reviewing it in the New Republic, film critic Stanley Kauffman wondered why, since so many other Jews had "adjusted" to something like a normal life, a Sol Nazerman was created to represent the experience.8 No one can answer this question.
The literature on Holocaust survivors is immense and can easily be marshaled as the historical context of this film, if only to show the wide variety of responses to their tortured past. The film appeared in 1964, barely 20 years after the liberation of the death camps in Europe and at a moment in American history when moviegoers were being fed largely by big budget technicolor productions. A fruitful assignment might be student interviews of survivors who saw the film at the time of its release. Another would be to contrast it with the stories told in William B. Helmreich's Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America.9 The kind of closure embodied in The Pawnbroker complicates the story of Holocaust memory. When set against, say, the documentary epilogue of Schindler's List, the range of discussion will unroll in and of itself about how history, fiction, and film shape each other in the popular mind. What could all this mean to 18–22-year-old moviegoing students who are trying to come to grips with a distant past?10
For a course in Jewish history, the monologue on the Diaspora alone would provide ample provocation for discussion. And for the really adventurous among those who teach courses on New York City or on film noir, the colorful cast of multiethnic characters, and Harlem itself as contrasted to the blandness of the Long Island suburb where Nazerman lives, and the very darkness of the story, the photography, and the setting all offer a chance to depress, elevate, enlighten students, and perhaps even transform the way they, as historians, will henceforth look at movies—in or out of the classroom.
—Richard Stites is Distinguished Professor of International Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
1. Those interested in the syllabus for this course may e-mail me at email@example.com.
6. Neal Gabler, An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Pantheon, Doubleday, 1988). For German "silence" on the Holocaust in the same period, see David Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 2d ed. (New York: Norton, 1990), 853–54.
10. The very useful Teaching about the Holocaust: A Resource Book for Educators (Washington: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2001) lists histories, memoirs, novels, and films, but makes no mention of The Pawnbroker.