“Filth! Horror! Right in the middle of it and you don’t know it”: Traumatic Memory in The Pawnbroker (1965)

Sydney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1965) is a searing portrait of a Holocaust survivor immersed in the desolation of an East Harlem pawnshop in the early 1960s.  Approaching the anniversary of his wife’s murder in a concentration camp brothel, Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) 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.  Sol is in “a self-imposed exile in a soulless graveyard of memory. . . .”, to quote one discerning review.[i] 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.

Marilyn Birchfield tries and fails to connect to Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman

Sol’s environment is ostensibly far removed in time and space from the concentration camp, but Lumet’s use of flashbacks conflates the two in Sol’s mind.  Sol exiles himself daily to the impoverished ghetto community of East Harlem as if subconsciously seeking out an American variant of the human misery he left behind in Europe. Sol’s American relatives badger him into loaning them money for a European vacation, desiring the “sights, sounds and smells” of old Europe.  Sol quips bitterly, “Rather like a stench, if I remember.”[ii]  But the stench is not in the past, on another continent; it is his present as well.  Sol toils amid pervasive violence and crushing poverty as his clients wander into the pawnshop hawking anything and everything while he impassively absorbs their sad stories.

  Lumet, Frank Cunningham observes, “visually reveals both the pawnbroker and the street youths as similarly victims of their social and psychological environment.”  Lumet films Sol and his wretched customers as if trapped behind the bars of the pawnshop.  Sol is as much a prisoner of his circumstance as the “creatures” he trades with, although he has the means to escape.  “The cage of Nazerman’s experience is visually reinforced at several places in the film’s narrative,” Cunningham concludes.[iii] 

Sol Nazerman’s pawnshop helps launder money for a criminal named Rodriguez, played brilliantly by Brock Peters. Rodriguez’s money comes primarily from prostitution and theft.  Sol presumably knows this, but he is indifferent to this reality until his traumatic memories begin to intrude.  Sol’s wife was raped repeatedly by SS officers in a concentration camp brothel before succumbing.  In one flashback Sol is forced to watch.  When Jesus’ girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), a prostitute, tries to seduce Sol, disrobing and asking for money, Sol’s trauma sends him reeling. He loses himself in a city whose collective misery he finally begins to see and feel.  Summoning some semblance of courage, Sol goes to Rodriguez’s pristine white apartment and confronts him about their arrangement.  Rodriguez is a cultured, wealthy, homosexual criminal dressed in a tailored white suit who seems to know and admire Sol despite the unequal relationship.  Rodriguez insists on addressing Sol as “professor,” which makes Sol wince every time he hears it, a painful reminder of a past life.  Rodriguez clinically and cruelly dissects Sol’s sudden burst of moral righteousness.

In a perverse sense, Rodriguez is Sol’s spiritual navigator by virtue of demolishing what’s left of his heretofore impenetrable wall.  It is not the kindly Marilyn Birchfeld or the eager protégé Jesus who returns Sol the land of the living – it is the icy gangster Rodriguez. The Pawnbroker never tries to conflate the Holocaust with urban blight and systemic racism in America; Lumet is much more subtle and talented for that. However, the film does remind us the root of all evil is indifference to other people’s suffering.


[i] Celluloid Liberation Front, “Senses of Cinema, Auschwitz-Harlem:  Post-Traumatic Economy in The Pawnbroker”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 59, June 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/auschwitz%c2%ad%e2%80%93harlem-post-traumatic-economy-in-the-pawnbroker/ [accessed July 3, 2019].

[ii] The Pawnbroker, directed by Sydney Lumet (1965: Artisan Entertainment, 2003), DVD.

[iii] Frank R. Cunningham, “The Insistence of Memory: The Opening Sequence of Lumet’s Pawnbroker”, Literature/Film Quarterly 7, no. 1 (1989), 295.

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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