The Pawnbroker (1965) is one of the first Hollywood films to deal with a Holocaust subject. It is the story of Sol Nazerman, (played by Rod Steiger) a survivor of Auschwitz, who runs a pawnshop in Harlem. He is, as he says, “surviving” but he has become a frozen shell, unable to allow for human connection. He supports the remnants of his family but feels little connection to them. People come to his pawnshop, but he feels no connection to any of them, either. He has taken on an assistant, Jesús Ortiz (Jamie Sanchez) a young man who is attempting to turn his life around. The film follows Sol through a crucial few days in which his defenses gradually fall apart, as the tragedies in his past crowd in upon him.
Commentary: This may be one of the earliest films about the Holocaust, but in many ways it is still one of the most effective. Sol’s sufferings and losses are seen only in post-traumatic flashbacks, so we experience (a little bit) his fragmented existence. Director Sidney Lumet chose to shoot the interiors of the pawn shop in as claustrophobic a manner as possible, every shot hemmed in with bars and grids. He makes it clear that Sol has never left the camps; he internalized them. As another survivor observes, he is the “walking dead.”
It was a bold and insightful decision to portray the Holocaust not as a coherent story, but in the splintered memories of a survivor. In the film, the Shoah is not an event of history, it is a personal cataclysm. We catch a glimpse of what was, and receive a hint of the Sol’s agony. No special effects, no explicit torture scenes, could convey the horror as well as these shattered bits shot in black and white, criss-crossed with the wire cages of the pawnshop. Steiger’s performance is excruciating, and it is no surprise that it was nominated for an Oscar.
Not every survivor of the camps was a Sol Nazerman, and the film makes that clear. Every individual who survived the camps had his or her own private horror. That fact sometimes gets lost in the grand sweep of blockbuster films like Schindler’s List or the historical detail of documentaries like Shoah. What the Pawnbroker reminds us is that while the evil of the German death machine may have been impersonal, the tragedies it inflicted were highly personal.
Video Bonus: The original trailer for The Pawnbroker is available on the TCM website.