‘We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses. This is an uncomfortable notion which I have gradually come to accept by reading what other survivors have written, including myself, when I re-read my writings after a lapse of years. We, the survivors, are not only a tiny but also an anomalous minority. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.’
Idyllic family scene, long shots of a luminous countryside; the reciprocal gaze of love links husband and wife to the rest of the family. The expression on everybody’s face changes suddenly, the impending horror of National Socialism abruptly intrudes on the immaculate harmony. Cut. Long shot of suburban tract houses. Long Island, the same man from the previous sequence anonymously sits within a less idyllic family set, darkened and aged.
Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) tells the story of a man enduring a self-imposed exile in a soulless graveyard of memory. A man sheltering his tortured self in the American nightmare where the dire logic of giving nothing for nothing seems to offer him the only value of survival. Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) lost all his family in the holocaust and now lives in New York where he runs a pawnshop owned by an Afro-American pimp. He has severed his sensitive self from the inhuman society he found outside of Auschwitz and tried to achieve a sort of affective immunity from the sphere of emotions. Rod Steiger’s impeccable performance and chilling mimicry better serve the purpose of describing the tragedy of a man attempting to lead an emotionless life in order to survive the never-ending horrors of humanity. His trade and the merciless logic of profit ostensibly represent the shield behind which he defends himself against any affective disruption. He even sarcastically illustrates at one point to his apprentice Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez), a young Puerto Rican eager to learn the trade, how come ‘they’ have such a way with money. In a short and piercing monologue Sol Nazerman bitterly reveals the harsh parable of the Jewish people whose socio-economic trajectory, as Karl Marx first pointed out in his On the Jewish Question, prefigured the basis of modernity. Jewish as a minority that has built itself on the basis that are today universally recognised: the market, communication, mobility, specialization and textual interpretation. But also as the most lucid critics of capitalism, who in fact inspired, theorized, participated and sometimes led a large part of the revolutionary movements in the past two centuries. Jews have thus incarnated a clearly perceivable singularity that nonetheless remains hard to define: on the one hand they prefigured progress and modernity but on the other hand they have been the target of conservative cultures and nationalisms. Auschwitz constitutes an annihilating watershed, especially for those who walked out from the endless shadow of its sign, Albeit Macht Frei. In Primo Levi’s words this is the man who left the camps: “an emaciated man, with a head drooped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is seen”. Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel upon which the film is based introduces the figure of Sol Nazerman thus: “he had the battered memento of his body and his brain to protect him from illusion”. The Pawnbroker’s story is emblematic of this historical trauma and explores its contradictions with a remarkable lack of preconceptions or accommodating moralism.
The drama that lacerates Sol Nazerman on the eve of the 25th anniversary since the death of his family is precisely caused by the persistence of his memories, of history, claiming his distressed existence. Seemingly so, the land of opportunities does not suffice in providing a new life, on the contrary, its inhuman stances constantly serve as reminders of past atrocities. On this parallel (which does not imply any equivalence) between the concentration camp and the concentrationary inner city, Lumet’s film articulates the post-traumatic degradation of the individual measured against the wider degradation of society. Sol Nazerman’s indifference towards the violence of life and its doggedness towards marginal and weak individuals, who in the film are never absolved nor glorified because of their victimized status, is a pretence that visibly fails him. “I have escaped emotions, I’m safe within myself” he insists, “black, white, yellow, they are all equally…” “Equally what?” asks Jesus, “Scum!” roars out Sol. “Is there anything you believe in?” presses on Jesus… Although he confesses to Jesus that the only thing he believes in is money – Jesus’ response to it will be to go ahead with the robbery he had been hesitantly plotting at Sol’s expense with the local thugs – this clearly does not explain his grief.
Under the rule of his majesty the dollar everyone is equally corrupt, regardless of his race, creed, status quo or gender, which is what excludes any possibility of redemption or of dignified living. Money, that in the film signifies moral degradation, deprives the victims’ suffering of any nobility. The irrational and stubborn resistance of sentiments underneath this wall of dehumanizing contingencies is what nurtures the pain of Sol Nazerman.
Mrs Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a social worker infatuated with Sol, personifies the naïve liberalism of a benevolent kind that has any tragedy surmountable and prone to a happy ending. But the inadequacy of her ideals is soon exposed when she incautiously compares the loss of her husband with Sol’s past in the camps; her ineffectual attempts to bring serenity to Sol’s life are indicative of the incurable wounds paining the survivor and the untold void surrounding them. Her charitable words are the counterpoint to those of Mendel, the dying father of Tessie, Sol’s insipid and gaunt companion who once was his best friend’s wife. Her husband perished in Auschwitz and her old father, played by Lumet’s father, Baruch, resentfully accuses Sol of deluding himself to survive the death of others. Mendel’s cruel words exemplifies one of the possible causes of Sol Nazerman unresolved inner conflict, the anthropological reality can only be defined and therefore lived on the basis of its current form. History cannot be erased and its memory needs to be faced in spite of the vainglorious promises of a fake dream. Happiness cannot be built on the fundaments of injustice, forgetfulness and material gain. If Mrs Birchfield betrays a rather superficial understanding of the holocaust’s horror, the lower classes are utterly unaware of its existence; Jesus and one of the small-time thieves even ask him what is the tattoo on the survivor’s arm. Cruelly enough, survival is the existential cipher impressed on the streets of Harlem where the never-ending search for money is the principal occupation of its inhabitants, disfigured by a world that denies happiness and freedom. The pawnshop, albeit in its smaller scale, aspires then to the universal depiction of a modern world inhabited by citizens without citizenship for the only value of belonging is that of money and the power that derives from it. If the absence of a familiar world is characteristic of the Jewish experience, acosmia is the name given it by Hannah Arendt in The Jew as Pariah, what leaves the pawnbroker hopeless is the realization that reciprocity and solidarity are alien notions in modern society as much as they were in the camps.
Nazerman’s impotence, emphasized by the flashbacks where he is unable to save his family, represents the difficulty of overcoming an existential clamp cemented in an immovable sensation. Sol’s inability to escape the horrors of the holocaust is partly due to the very nature of trauma but also to the socio-cultural specificities of the New World; in the novel the narrator reflects on the pawnbroker’s ‘new’ condition in these terms: “soon you wouldn’t know the Jews from their oppressors […] they were all around him like so many guards”. There is neither moral hierarchy nor ethical alphabetization as exemplified by the relation between Sol and Rodriguez (Brock Peters), the pimp owner of the pawnshop. When Rodriguez calls to Nazerman in the shop the shot frames him from a low angle emphasizing his statuary power while showing Sol from above behind the counter’s fence as if to dwell on his imprisonment. An immaculate white, like the skin of the dominant order, illuminates Rodriguez’s apartment; the dark tonalities of grey, always lit from above, burden the pawnshop in its immovable heavy shadows, black like the pawnbroker’s fate.
The close-ups stress Sol’s isolation and announce the coming of post-traumatic flashbacks whose frantic speed, triggered by disturbing daily occurrences, assail his consciousness exhuming his past buried under the rubble of his present condition. When a pregnant woman tries to pawn her engagement ring, Sol is tormented by images of dead hands hanging from barbed wire from which rings are being taken off. When Jesus’ girlfriend, a black prostitute, strips in front of Sol to raise some money for her boyfriend, he looks away and sees flashbacks of his wife being abused by the SS in the concentration camp. When travelling in the subway he opens the door of the wagon and is faced with a deportation train crammed with prisoners where unable to hold his son he drops him to the floor abandoning him to inevitable death. When he opens his eyes the horror persists, the abuse of power by men on other men has not vanished. This is the film’s greatest and most painful observation: that of a humanity caught in inhumanity. Lumet passes no judgements, presents the evidence and asks the questions.