Midsommar (2019) and The Pawnbroker (1964): Meditations on Grief

Sol Nazerman from The Pawnbroker is featured prominently in Midsommar

What possible connection is there between Midsommar, a 2019 horror film set in remote Sweden and The Pawnbroker, Sidney Lumet’s searing portrait of a Holocaust survivor navigating the urban decay of 1960s Brooklyn?  Midsommar director Ari Aster thinks there is one, which is why he situates a photo of Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), the protagonist in The Pawnbroker, in the middle of Dani Ardor’s (Florence Pugh) mural of pictures and paintings above her work space. We are meant to associate these two characters, and for good reason, because both Sol and Dani are consumed by unfathomable grief.

Ari Aster’s critically acclaimed Midsommar is a terrifying and mesmerizing “slow burn” of a folk horror film in which a group of American graduate students become unwitting human sacrifice in a remote Swedish commune’s summer festival. More akin to The Wicker Man (1974) than the Hostel series or Turistas (2006), where somewhat obnoxious Americans are tortured and brutalized at the hands of foreigners, Midsommar is both an exploration of the pagan culture in Hälsingland, Sweden and a powerful meditation on grief and rebirth.

The film centers on Dani, a psychology student who is plunged into the depths of despair after her mentally ill sister kills herself and their parents in a murder-suicide. Dani’s boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), who was on the verge of breaking up with Dani when she hears the news, is wholly incapable of helping Dani overcome her grief and seizes on an invitation from Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to visit his ancestral village along with other cultural anthropology students. Christian reluctantly invites Dani when she learns he hid the trip from her, straining an already fraught relationship. Once in Sweden the American visitors are immersed in a nine day festival occurring every ninety years. The group experiences ever more harrowing rituals such as imbibing hallucinogenic mushrooms, witnessing village elders plummeting to their deaths from a cliff (one survivor is smashed by a hammer), and Christian is drugged and encouraged to impregnate a virgin to bring “new blood” into the commune. Dani is understandably triggered by the ceaseless trauma, but while her friends begin to “disappear” after disrespecting their hosts she draws closer to the commune. The Hårga are empathetic where her friends are indifferent; the Hårga experience grief, pain, and joy as a community where her friends are self-centered and preoccupied; and while Dani suppressed her grief, rage, and depression in the outside world, she exorcises her pain among the Hårga, ultimately becoming the celebrated May Queen.

Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger)

And what of Sol Nazerman’s anguish? How is his pain similar to Dani’s? Approaching the anniversary of his wife’s murder in a concentration camp brothel, Sol Nazerman is flooded by debilitating memories of his murdered family as events force him to confront his complicity in the seedy underworld of crime and prostitution.  Nazerman’s only human connections outside the endless stream of “pathetic creatures” unloading what’s left of their lives for a few dollars is Jesus (Jaime Sánchez), his enthusiastic and idealistic Puerto Rican employee, Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), the beautiful but broken widow of Nazerman’s deceased best friend with whom Sol carries on a passionless relationship, Mendel (Baruch Lumet), Tessie’s decrepit and dying father-in-law, and the kindly Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a social worker who tries to befriend Sol amid his spiraling crisis.  Sol’s American relatives live in a faceless Long Island suburb and bicker excitedly over a trip to the “old country” which claimed their family.  Living off of Sol’s ill-gotten wealth, the family is oblivious to his turmoil, let alone the incommensurable horror of the Holocaust. Once a professor of literature in a verdant and welcoming Germany, Sol lives out his days in the ghetto channeling two millennia of antisemitic stereotypes.  A pawnbroker, the Wandering Jew, Sol agrees to teach Jesus “gold” and crushes the youth’s spirit when he exclaims bitterly that money is the only thing that matters in the world.  Nazerman’s body is still here, but his spirit, his humanity died in the camp.  The Pawnbroker explores the post-traumatic degradation of the individual measured against the wider degradation of society. 

The reference to The Pawnbroker is not the only link between Midsommar and Holocaust imagery. Dani’s sister Terry kills herself and her parents by pumping carbon monoxide gas into their sealed home, the same method deployed by the SS in the death camps before the advent of the cyanide-based gas Zyklon-B. Moreover, the Swedish pagan hamlet of Hårga is littered with rune stones, a source of endless fascination among some of the SS’ more obscure “academics” and contemporary neo-Nazis alike. An extended shot of books on Pelle’s coffee table reveals a very interesting title – The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark. The uthark theory maintained the ancient Nordic runic alphabet could be deciphered using knowledge of the occult. Neither the book nor Pelle’s interest in the subject is ever explained or referenced again, although the secrets behind the rituals are written on the runic stones.

Sol’s breakdown includes flashbacks to the concentration camp where his wife was murdered.

Discerning authorial intent is always tricky. In the case of the strategically placed photo of Nazerman in the apartment of a young woman immersed in incomprehensible horror amid an uncaring world, it seems clear Aster is announcing his film is at its core a meditation on grief. Of course, he is also likely an admirer of Sidney Lumet. At the end of The Pawnbroker Sol undergoes a traumatic break and all the pain, guilt, and suppressed emotion he kept at bay for fifteen years engulfs him. When Jesus is shot outside his store in a botched robbery, Sol cradles him and screams in anguish. The film concludes with Sol wandering the streets alone. Contrarily, Dani is healed by the empathy of the Hårga community. They scream with her, feel her pain, bring her back from the land of the dead with genuine empathy and love. Her ending is a triumph, literally, bedecked in flowers and overseeing a festival in her honor. Dani will likely never go home to her sad apartment decorated with Sol’s sad photo.  

Dani is welcomed into the Hårga commune as her grief becomes theirs,

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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