The Headspace of a Holocaust Survivor: The Pawnbroker (1964)


Sidney Lumet made a lot of movies in his lifetime, many of them are regarded as classics while others, like The Pawnbroker, have become hidden gems waiting to be unearthed by subsequent generations of filmgoers. The film follows Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), a concentration camp survivor living out his later years running a dingy pawn shop in 60s Harlem. He is haunted by the past and can’t go a day without remembering his time as a captive. He relives the murder of his wife and children every day. Nazerman is a man who seems to have given up on finding happiness or even closure. He repays warmth and kindness with a cold shoulder. For him, he gave life a shot and it failed him. Now, he simply exists because the nazis couldn’t even do him the courtesy of putting him out of his misery.

One of the things I love about Lumet’s work, and it’s something I’ve found to be a prominent obsession for him while revisiting a lot of his movies lately, is his knack for capturing time and place. His movies very rarely looked like movies. When the material calls for it, Lumet can plunge you into reality at gutter-level. The Harlem in The Pawnbroker is an oppressive world full of sweat, colour and tensions. It was made in 1964 yet it has all the life, threat and authenticity of New York seen through the eyes of Scorsese or Spike Lee. There is no sugar-coating here. Even the actors are denied the pleasure of looking like movie stars.

Steiger is shot through cluttered frames, imprisoned by bars in the foreground or surrounding area and even when he is out in the open Lumet avoids flattering angles. Steiger gives a full-blooded performance, full of hated and vitriol that makes him tough to root for but easy to be fascinated by. All the faces in this movie have history in them. At one point a young, black prostitute tries to seduce Nazerman for money in the backroom of his shop. She exposes her body to him but the scene is not erotic but uncomfortable and sad. Both of these people are broken and desperate and Lumet emphasises this through their faces. Nazerman can barely look at the girl, while she wants nothing more than to be looked at and helped. It is an extremely raw and shocking scene, apparently the first time female nudity from the waist up in a US film was passed by the MPAA. The film is full of that kind of rawness. The relationships between all of the characters seem to operate on a razor’s edge. You know things are going to erupt into violence eventually, it’s just a question of when and at who’s expense.

Lumet and editor Ralph Rosenblum create a very distinct language with the cutting. Nazerman’s haunted psyche is represented by subliminal cuts. It’s very rare you get a scene with him in close up that isn’t punctuated by staccato flash frames of violence and ugliness from his time in the concentration camp. Editing was undergoing a bit of a reinvention in America during the 1960s thanks to the French New Wave and Lumet’s use of a very deliberate and intrusive cutting rhythm here feels vital, even today. It makes the film violent and shocking even when what’s happening on screen might be anything but. Scenes of kids scrapping in a playground are juxtaposed with the Nazis beating someone to death. A cluttered subway car match cuts to a loaded train carriage packed with imprisoned jews being led to their deaths. It feels like there is violence everywhere. The overall effect is disturbing and I imagine was especially shocking for audiences back in 1964. The black and white photography by Boris Kaufman also goes a long way to give the film a stark sense of reality and foreboding. Sweat and blood has never looked as parasitic as it does on black and white celluloid. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock.

The Pawnbroker was one of the first major films made to tackle the life of a holocaust survivor head-on. The storyline might get a bit melodramatic as it progresses – big emotions, big plot beats – but the technique is anything but. The film feels in tune with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in the way it metamorphosizes with the protagonist’s headspace through aesthetic and environment. Both films are committed character studies. Like Taxi DriverThe Pawnbroker is an ugly, bleak little picture but one that feels extremely authentic and blunt without sacrificing complexity. It also features an unconventional jazz score courtesy of Quincy Jones which, like Herrmann’s score for Scorsese’s film, is designed as a very deliberate counterpoint to what is on screen. As with many of Lumet’s greatest films, it appears to be full of rough edges and raw, honest performance but make no mistake; everything here is intentional and orchestrated by the director’s uncompromising hand anchored by a great lead performance by Steiger. Stylistic but not showy, grim but not unpleasant, The Pawnbroker is the real deal. A fantastic film to discover, discuss and pass on. As a Lumet fan, I enjoyed it immensely.

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