I’ve dug through my recent memories to determine where I got this ‘fact,’ but according to one documentary or other, The Pawnbroker is the first film to deal with the issue of Nazi death camps on survivors.
The context is that, for decades after the war, those who survived felt a complex sense of shame (sometimes shame mixed with guilt) about surviving and they generally kept it to themselves. This is why the past 15 years or so have seen so many films and documentaries about that most nauseating portion of human history. Once people started gaining the catharsis of telling, more began to tell. In this respect, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker is well before its time.
Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) is a pawnbroker on the far upper east side of Manhattan just below where Harlem officially starts. The contemporary events take place in the middle sixties and most of the action takes place in his pawnshop. We learn, early in the film, that the twenty-fifth anniversary of his wife’s death is only a few days away. Her death occurred in a concentration camp. As the date approaches, the nearly impervious shell Sol built for himself and the hopelessness it seems to protect begins to crumble. While he crumbles, he interacts with the desperate of the neighborhood who use the pawnshop as much for drug money as anything else. He becomes more and more haunted and less and less in control of his protective shell as the movie progresses and the anniversary date nears. The film culminates in a botched robbery attempt that seems to shake fully awake emotions he had kept under wraps for a quarter of a century.
From my experience, The Pawnbroker is unique among survivor stories on film. Our brief looks at the camp are done in a memory mimicking flashback (sometimes only one frame long giving the feeling of subliminal suggestion). A few of them stretch for a few moments but we gain very little insight into Sol’s time in the camp. Unlike, say, Sophie’s Choice (my favorite survivor movie) or the many that followed it, we are given very little information through the scenes themselves to get more than a small and bitter taste of the situation. If I turn off my knowledge of the holocaust, the scenes don’t appear to be worse than any prison movie I’ve ever seen. So this means that for contemporary audiences, the horror of the place had to be borne by the characters of the survivors instead of any direct depiction.
That segues to this: Rod Steiger turned in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Him, the wife of his best friend who died in the camp, and her father make up the small group of survivors we see. Sol and Tessie, when they get together, wear their shame as if the full weight of the planet were pushing on them. They are called ‘dead’ by Tessie’s father who, ironically, is bed ridden but considers himself more alive than the two younger ones. Tessie isn’t on screen enough to know for certain that she is dead, but there is no doubting this of Sol.
Sol erupts twice, once in anger, once in something very hard to define. Sol employs an Hispanic, Jesus, who wants to learn the pawn business (particularly appraisal of metal and gems) from Sol. In something that today would seem supremely insulting (but was less so at the time, particularly since one minority was asking it of another), Jesus asks why Jews are so good at business. Sol goes into a screed that goes from putting aside even desire for food over a desire for money and finally screams that money is all that matters. I seriously doubt whether Sol believes this in the deepest part of him that is not dead (that demands to be heard as we see through the flashbacks), but he convinces Jesus that it is what he believes. This is the initial trigger for the botched robbery at the end of the film.
The second eruption isn’t violent. Instead all he says was that he could do nothing. By this time we are aware that he had a wife and two children. His statement is chilling in its simplicity. For those of us today who have sat through the films or read the books, this knowledge isn’t new despite still being horrifying. For a 1964 audience, this would be fresher and closer to news. This man of means found himself in the position where he could do nothing to protect his children and his wife. This is what killed him and created the shell around him.
Every one who uses the pawn shop as a bank is a minority; in fact, everyone in the film except for Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is a minority. Ms. Fitzgerald is a strong actress, but this role isn’t a stand out for her. Marilyn is a trigger for Sol because she looks so much like his dead wife (in this respect she is more function than character). It is telling that everyone else is a minority. I’ve mused on this for the better part of a day and don’t have an explanation that I am fully comfortable with. It fits the neighborhood on Park and 116th in the early 1960s, but the film could show Sol interacting with members of Manhattan’s majority. The only explanation that I am at all comfortable with is the notion of all being equal since all are minorities. It also gives Mr. Lumet a chance to play a race card of sorts: as Sol is breaking down, he refers to those who use his store as cattle (given the social situation at the time in the country, this remark would not be less surprising than it is today) which provides the second trigger to the robbery Jesus oversees. There are two white men involved in the story, but the implication is that both of them are gay.
The most striking thing about this black and white film was Rod Steiger. His character is someone frozen by emotional death but whose one ember left has decided to flare up. Further, because he is a front business for a racketeer, he is at the mercy of one who can do him great harm (being unable to do anything yet again). Therefore, he shows the chaotic dissolution of his protective mechanisms. Silent screams that shock the eye the same way the sound would had he given voice to it, show just how out of control his pent up emotions are. He is so overcome with memory, guilt, shame, despair, that his body can go through the motions of a scream but his lungs cannot give it voice—one last way he can do nothing. He is able to give voice to one scream, but it is born of a different frustration than is evident elsewhere. Mr. Steiger was nominated for best actor in 1965 but lost to Lee Marvin. It is no secret that the Oscars aren’t necessarily given to the most deserving—in this case I can honestly say that Lee Marvin would have had to walk on water to beat the performance Mr. Steiger gave.
The only drawback to the movie is something that is very personal. I hate jazz. Quincy Jones did the soundtrack of the movie and, to me, it is nauseating. If you are a Jones fan or someone who likes jazz, you will not be bothered by this.
What did you think of this review?