The Representation of Trauma and Memory in The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 1965)

by Peter Wilshire Volume 23 Issue 9-10 / October 2019 63 minutes (15626 words)

For most of us, remembering the Holocaust requires effort; we listen to stories, watch films, read histories. But the people who came to be called “survivors” could not avoid their memories. Sol Nazerman, protagonist of Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker, is one such sufferer (The Book Depository).


The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 1965) focuses on several days in the life of Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor from World War 11. Captured by the Nazis during the Holocaust, Nazerman and his family: his wife Ruth (Linda Geiser) and his two young children were deported to Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland. Only Nazerman survived. It’s now many years later and Nazerman is the proprietor of a pawnbroker shop in East Harlem, New York. However, with the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ruth’s death in Auschwitz approaching, Nazerman continues to be haunted by traumatic past memories of the Holocaust. These are recurring and unrelenting memories that Nazerman finds increasingly hard to suppress.

The Pawnbroker is based on the 1961 novel of the same name by American Jewish author Edward Lewis Wallant. Like the film version, Wallant’s novel focuses on traumatized Holocaust survivor, Sol Nazerman, formerly a professor at the University of Cracow, in Poland, before World War 11 (Philippe Codde, 195). One of the first American novels to examine the individual experience of a Holocaust survivor, The Pawnbroker was to garner Wallant critical recognition, becoming a National Book Award finalist in 1962 (held annually, the National Book Awards recognizes outstanding achievements in American literature) (National Book Foundation). Tragically, Wallant was to die of an aneurysm in 1962, only a year after the publication of The Pawnbroker, and before the release of the film in 1965. He was only thirty-six years old. Shortly after Wallant’s death, the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, created the Edward Lewis Wallant Award in his honour. It is presented annually to a writer whose fiction ‘bears a kinship to the work of Wallant’ (“The Maurice Greenberg Center: The Edward Lewis Award”).

Most importantly, The Pawnbroker, both the novel and the film, can be described as a story about memory. For Sol Nazerman, it’s about the repression of memory. Moreover, it is Nazerman’s need to repress his horrific experiences of the Holocaust and his imprisonment at Auschwitz that has progressively lead to uncontrollable, involuntary memory (Annette Insdorf). Now twenty-five years after the Holocaust, these persistent memories continue to haunt a traumatized Nazerman. In an attempt to psychologically insulate himself from the real world around him, Nazerman resists forming any kind of close personal relationship. However, as the anniversary of the death of his wife Ruth approaches, Nazerman can no longer suppress these traumatic memories from the past. Indeed, these memories are progressively intruding into Nazerman’s thought processes in the present, with the horrors of the Holocaust being triggered by incidents that he experiences in his daily life.

Sol Nazerman makes a comfortable living as the proprietor of a Harlem pawnshop. The owner of the pawnshop is Rodriguez (Brock Peters), an imposing, gay, Afro-American pimp. Rodriguez is also a racketeer who is involved in various nefarious activities, including using the pawnshop as a front for illegally laundering dirty money from a local brothel. Blinded by his attempts to remain disengaged from the real world, Nazerman is finally forced to come to the realization that Rodriguez is paying his wages from the proceeds of the brothel. These unsavory revelations only make Nazerman despise the world even more, reinforcing within him a sense of despair, bitterness and hopelessness.

A typical day for Nazerman involves dealing with an endless succession of ‘misfits’ and ‘outsiders’, including junkies, prostitutes, petty thieves, as well as various other pitiful souls who come into the shop, each with an item they want to pawn. From behind a prison-like wire cage, Nazerman keeps his distance from the customers, both physically and psychologically. Remaining detached and unemotional, Nazerman ignores the constant pleads from customers to offer them more money, rarely handing over more than a few dollars in exchange for their items.

Nazerman’s morose and cantankerous demeanor is contrasted strikingly with his upbeat, amiable young Puerto Rican assistant, Jesus Ortiz (Jamie Sanchez). Although Ortiz is hovering on the fringes of the criminal world, he yearns for a better life. Ambitious, Ortiz is eager to learn about the pawnshop business and wants Nazerman to teach him. Ortiz views Nazerman as a mentor; possibly even a father figure (Ortiz lives with his mother and doesn’t appear to have a father). Ortiz is also inquisitive. He is eager to find out more about Nazerman. Early in the film, Ortiz notices Nazerman’s concentration camp serial number from Auschwitz tattooed on the outer side of his left forearm. Intrigued, Ortiz asks Nazerman, “Do you want to tell me something Mr. Nazerman. What is that? Is that a secret society or something? How do I join?” To which Nazerman cryptically replies, “What do you do to join? You learn to walk on water.” To Ortiz, the job as an assistant in the shop, and his relationship with Nazerman, is a springboard to a better life away from crime. However, when Ortiz tries to befriend Nazerman he is kept at arms length. Only after Ortiz repeatedly asks, does Nazerman begrudgingly begin teaching him about the business. The relationship between Nazerman and Ortiz is central to The Pawnbroker. Indeed, Nazerman’s indifferent, disparaging and insensitive attitude towards Ortiz will ultimately have a profound effect on both men as the film reaches its dramatic and tragic conclusion.

Away from the pawnshop, Nazerman lends a dual existence. He lives with (and financially supports) his sister-in-law, Bertha (Nancy R. Pollock), her husband, Selig (E.M Margolese) and their teenage son and daughter in a new middle-class estate in Levittown on New York’s Long Island. However, Nazerman also visits his mistress Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell) and her ailing father, Mendel (played by Sidney Lumet’s own father, Baruch), who live in a dark, dreary and shabby apartment. Like Nazerman, both Tessie and Mendel are emotionally scarred by traumatic memories of their experiences during the Holocaust. It also appears that Nazerman and Tessie’s relationship is borne out of desperation, as well as a fear of being alone, rather than a genuine affection for one another. Or maybe they’ve lost the emotional sensitivity to be able to express that affection, numbed by their traumatic Holocaust experiences. For example, when Nazerman attempts to touch Tessie, there seems to be no closeness between them. No passion. No love. Only a shared understanding of each other’s painful and traumatic past.

The Early 1960s: A Time of Change

Significantly, the release of The Pawnbroker in 1965 came at a time of increasing instability within the old, established Hollywood studio system. By the beginning of the 1960s, a considerable fall in cinema attendance had resulted in diminished box office profits, with the big Hollywood studios struggling to compete with the growing popularity of television (Dominic Strinati, 19). Simultaneously, the emergence of foreign-language films [in particular, films of the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) by directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut] made on comparatively much smaller budgets, were beginning to increase in popularity, aimed at a more affluent and educated audience of discerning film goers (Dominic Strinati, 19).

Paradoxically, the advent of live television in the U.S. in the 1950s and early 1960s was to produce a number of young directors, among them Sidney Lumet (with John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn being other notable examples), who were later to make their mark in Hollywood as important filmmakers. Having cut their teeth directing live television drama, which often dealt with topical issues of the time, these ambitious young directors were interested in exploring new and culturally relevant subject matter in their feature films. Aware of the popularity of television, Hollywood studio executives were beginning to realize that viewers could potentially be attracted back to the cinema by focusing on ‘realistic’ and ‘mature’ portrayals of serious themes (including sexually explicit themes) (Dominic Strinati, 19). The Pawnbroker, with its focus on an individual Holocaust survivor, and its themes of trauma and repressed memory was well timed to take advantage of this new emerging window of opportunity in Hollywood as the 1960s progressed (Joshua Hirsch, (110).

The release of The Pawnbroker was also timely from a historical perspective. By 1965, World War 11 had been over for twenty years. Enough time had now elapsed for a post-war society to begin to confront the enormity of the Holocaust and the mass extermination of the Jews (the Nazis also murdered other ‘undesirables’; groups who they considered to be socially and racially inferior, such as gypsies and homosexuals, as well as political adversaries). The Nazis referred to this mass extermination as the ‘Final Solution’ (their plan to systematically murder all the Jews in Europe). By the end of World War 11, the Nazis had exterminated an estimated six million Jews (Catriona McKinnon, 156).

In the early 1960s, other important cultural events were also taking place, which increased public interest and awareness about the magnitude of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis during World War 11. In 1961, the dramatic trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem was televised in thirty-seven countries throughout the world (Euan Ferguson). A key player in the Final Solution, Eichmann was charged with facilitating and managing the logistics associated with the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe during World War 11. Found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people and humanity, Eichmann was sentenced to death in Israel and executed by hanging on June 1, 1962 (Peter Hayes and Roth, John K, 579).

The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial also took place during the early to mid-1960s. Held between 1963 and 1965, it was the largest, most public, and most important trial of Nazi perpetrators to take place in West German courts since 1945 (Devan O. Pendas, 1). The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial was also a Holocaust trial, concerned with the deliberate mass extermination (genocide) of the Jews by the Nazis. The trial focused on twenty-two defendants. It took place over twenty months, involved 183 trial sessions, with more than 350 witnesses testifying, including 211 survivors of Auschwitz. Dozens of attorneys representing the prosecution, the defence, and civil plaintiffs from around the world, argued about the nature and the meaning of mass murder, torture, and genocide (Devan O. Pendas, 2).

A Landmark Holocaust Film

Most importantly, The Pawnbroker was the first American feature film to portray the central character as a Holocaust survivor (Daniel Egan, 162). In addition, with its use of innovative flashback sequences to represent Sol Nazerman’s traumatized state of mind, The Pawnbroker was also the first American feature film to depict the impact of the Holocaust from the point of view of a survivor (Anthony J. Sciolino, xvii).

Before The Pawnbroker, few Hollywood films had tackled the problematical subject of the Holocaust. Moreover, the horror of the concentration camps had always remained off-screen (David Desser and Lester D. Freidman, 209). However, in the years before The Pawnbroker, some noteworthy Hollywood films did incorporate stories related to the Holocaust. These films include: The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948), with its focus on a nine-year old Czech boy, and survivor of Auschwitz, who flees a refugee centre in post-war Germany; The Juggler (Edward Dmytryk, 1953), which concentrates on a former concentration camp inmate who, due to his psychological problems, can’t adjust to post-war life (The Juggler was also notable for being the first American feature film to depict the traumatic effects of the Holocaust on survivors) (Jack R. Fischel, 78); The Dairy of Anne Frank (George Stevens, 1959), is a true story based on the diary of a young Jewish girl, Anne Frank (portrayed by Millie Perkins in the film) who, with her family and friends, was forced to hide in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam during World War 11 (the film followed the Pulitzer Prize winning stage play, also titled The Dairy of Anne Frank).

Released at the beginning of the 1960s, Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961) was one of the most significant Hollywood films to raise awareness among viewers, in relation to the sheer scale of the Holocaust. A big production, with an all-star cast including Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark and Maximilian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg was a dramatization of the Nuremberg Trial held on November 20, 1945, when twenty-two representatives of the Nazi elite stood before an international military tribunal at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany. These Nazi officials were charged with the systematic murder of millions of people (“The Nuremberg Trials”). Judgement at Nuremberg was originally a television play screened in 1959 as part of the Playhouse 90 series on CBS (with writer Abby Mann adapting the screenplay for the film from his original CBS teleplay) (Tino Balio, 144). Judgment at Nuremberg was also notable for being the first Hollywood feature to present actual documentary footage of the concentration camps, which was used in combination with the dramatized trial scenes of the Nazi war criminals (Larry Langman and Borg (Eds.), 38).

Sidney Lumet: Hollywood Maverick

The director of The Pawnbroker, Sidney Lumet, was born to Jewish parents in Philadelphia on June 25, 1924 (he died on April 9, 2011, aged 86). The family moved to New York when the young Sidney Lumet was just one year old. His father Baruch (who appears in The Pawnbroker; see above) was an actor at the Yiddish theater in New York and his mother Eugenia was a dancer. Lumet made his debut on radio at age four. He also took to the stage as a child actor, making his debut at the Yiddish Art Theater at age five. In 1935, at age eleven, Lumet made his Broadway debut in Dead End, a social drama written by family friend Sidney Kingsley, which focuses on the slums of New York and its connection to crime (“About Sidney Lumet”).

Not long after World War 11 began, Lumet’s career was put on hold when he enlisted in the Army Signal Corps in 1941 at age seventeen. He served as a radar technician; stationed in India and Burma throughout World War 11 (“About Sidney Lumet”). After the war, Lumet returned to the theater, where he began directing off-Broadway productions. In 1949, he formed an off-Broadway acting group and began to do some directing (Joanna E. Rapf, x). During this period, Lumet also became involved with the Actor’s Studio, and then formed his own theater workshop. In addition, he directed in summer stock theatre and taught acting at the High School of Professional Arts in New York (“About Sidney Lumet”).

The breakthrough in Sidney Lumet’s career came in 1950, when his friend, actor Yul Brynner, who was then a director with CBS asked him to join the network as an assistant director (“Sidney Lumet: Obituary”). At CBS, Lumet won recognition as a gifted director of television drama. Lumet was to direct 250 television programs, many of them in the prestigious category of live drama, demonstrating a wide range of interests that would become the hallmark of his later feature film career (“Sidney Lumet”, ImdB).

Lumet also directed historical dramas for television, including The Sacco and Vanzetti Story (1960) (“The Sacco and Vanzetti Story: Part 1”), as well as television adaptations from the stage such as The Iceman Cometh (1960) (“The Iceman Cometh”).

Most importantly, Sidney Lumet was to become best known as a feature film director in a long and distinguished career that included many highlights. Lumet has also been described as a maverick Hollywood film director whose movies often incorporated issues relating to individual responsibility in the face of social injustice (Henry Gonshak, 117).

Lumet’s first feature was 12 Angry Men (1957), which would lay the groundwork for themes that he would subsequently explore in many of his future films. These themes include: humanity attempting to prevail amid cynicism and corruption in an urban, political setting, as well as the focus on a righteous protagonist standing alone surrounded by a harsh world, in which he is attacked from all sides, sometimes by those he loves and trusts the most (Georgakas and Quart, p. 6).

Making The Pawnbroker

The Pawnbroker was Sidney Lumet’s eighth feature film. It is shot in stark black and white by renowned cinematographer Boris Kaufman (whose feature film credits stretch back to the 1930s). Kaufman had also previously worked with Lumet as cinematographer on 12 Angry Men, as well as That Kind of Woman (1959), The Fugitive Kind (1960), Long Days Journey Into Night (1962). In addition, Kaufman had won the Oscar for Best Cinematography at the 1955 Academy Awards for On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) (“On the Waterfront”, Internet Movie Database). Most importantly, it is Kaufman’s striking imagery, which infuses The Pawnbroker with a documentary-like grittiness and realism, particularly the location shots of downtown Harlem in the early 1960s, which highlight a vibrant, but depressingly squalid environment where it is a daily struggle just to survive.

The gritty realism and challenging subject matter of The Pawnbroker, however, frightened studio executives (Daniel Egan, 612). In the early 1960s, such an unflinching, unsentimental and honest depiction of a Holocaust survivor was pushing the boundaries of what could be considered ‘good taste’ in American cinema at the time (Leff, 7). A major Hollywood studio, MGM, was originally slated to release The Pawnbroker. But after MGM demanded too many script changes, including an upbeat ending, the film was finally taken over by an independent company, Allied Artists (UA), as well as a more agreeable independent producer, Ely Landau (who had also co-produced Sidney Lumet’s previous film Long Day’s Journey Into Night) (Gonshak, 117). To his credit, Landau decided to finance the film with U.S. $1.2 million out of his own pocket. It is also worth noting that Sidney Lumet actually came on board during preproduction, taking over the project after Landau fired the original director Arthur Hiller. By this time, Rod Steiger had already been cast in the role of Sol Nazerman (Mark Harris, 174). With Lumet now directing, The Pawnbroker was rehearsed and shot in New York in the fall of 1963 (Jeff Leonard, 8).

The Pawnbroker first premiered in June 1964 at the Berlin Film Festival, a venue that was especially significant given the film’s historical subject matter. The Pawnbroker received a sustained ovation, with Rod Steiger winning the Best Actor award at the festival, in what many viewers hailed as the performance of his career. Nevertheless, The Pawnbroker was to have major distribution problems. The film was rejected by every studio in Hollywood because of only several seconds of footage: one brief scene, in which a black prostitute (Ortiz’s girlfriend Mabel Wheatly, portrayed by Thelma Oliver) exposes her breasts to Nazerman in the pawnshop, and another split-second scene: Nazerman’s traumatic flashback to Auschwitz in the same sequence, which momentarily displays the bare breasts of his wife Ruth (also see analysis of both scenes below) (Mark Harris 175).

Crucially, Lumet had also decided not to film a ‘protection shot’ (an alternate take of the scene without nudity). However, at the time, the Production Code’s ban on nudity was absolute. Without the Production Code Administration (PCA) seal from Geoffrey Shurlock (the director of the Production Code Administration for the Motion Picture Association of America at that time), as well as an approval rating from the Legion of Decency (by then called the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures), no major company would touch the film. But producer Ely Laudau stood firm and refused to remove the offending footage. Consequently, The Pawnbroker was to remain unseen in the U.S. for almost a year after its initial Berlin premiere (Harris, Mark, p.175.).

Dogged persistence was to eventually pay off when Sidney Lumet (at the urging of his colleague, director, screenwriter and producer, Joesph L. Mankiewicz) took the unusual step (for the time) of appealing Shurlock’s decision to the Motion Picture Association’s thirteen-member board. Mankiewicz was himself a member of the appeals committee, and thanks to his impassioned lobbying The Pawnbroker was finally given code approval in March 1965. Importantly, The Pawnbroker was the first film displaying bare breasts to receive Production Code approval (although the approval was prefaced with an announcement that it was ‘to be viewed as a special and unique case’) (Harris, Mark, p.175).

Criticisms of The Pawnbroker

Over the years, The Pawnbroker has been highly praised by many critics. Nevertheless, the film has also received its fair share of criticism. When it was first released, The Pawnbroker generated considerable controversy, with some Jewish organizations urged to boycott the film due to its uncompromising depiction of a Jewish pawnbroker, which they felt encouraged anti-Semitism. African-American groups also accused the film of encouraging racial stereotypes of inner city Harlem, where everyone seemed to be a pimp, prostitute or drug addict (Jeff Stafford).

Another significant criticism of The Pawnbroker concerns the juxtaposition of the theme of Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust with the experiences of an impoverished community of ethnic minorities in Harlem in the early 1960s (Adam Brown and Christmas, Danielle, 12). One of the most prominent critics of The Pawnbroker is Ilan Avisar, who has written extensively about the representation of the Holocaust in the cinema. Avisar described The Pawnbroker as an, “extreme example of Jewish self-hatred” (Brown and Christmas, p.13 ), while also condemning the film for being a “bogus analogy between the horrors of the Holocaust and living conditions in Spanish Harlem” (Leff, 13) However, Sidney Lumet, interviewed for the journal Films and Filming in 1964 specifically emphasized that, “there certainly was no attempt to show Harlem as a modern concentration camp – it’s quite the reverse, Harlem in the film is meant to have enormous life about it with all its sadness” (Joanna Papf, 13).

Most importantly, the juxtaposition of contemporary Harlem with Sol Nazerman’s psychological flashbacks to his traumatic experiences during the Holocaust, although emphasized within the pages of Edward Wallant’s novel, is even more pronounced in the film adaptation. But, unlike the novel, the film relies on visual technique to depict Nazerman’s ongoing trauma, which stems from his Holocaust experiences. The cinematic technique of very quick edits or shock cuts (see section on technical innovations below) is skillfully utilized to depict the trauma of Nazerman’s ongoing Holocaust experiences by incorporating a series of increasingly intrusive flashbacks, which are progressively impinging on his life as a pawnbroker in contemporary Harlem. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of contemporary Harlem with Nazerman’s Holocaust experiences is highlighted visually by how these traumatic flashbacks are triggered by what he sees and experiences in the present. In addition, the film contains a number of Holocaust motifs that exist for Nazerman within the visual backdrop of contemporary Harlem (see analysis of the film below) (Wendy Zierler, 52).

The opening sequence of The Pawnbroker also suggests that Sidney Lumet was acutely aware of the potential limitations (as well as the technical difficulties) of visually juxtaposing scenes of contemporary Harlem with Nazerman’s traumatic flashbacks to his Holocaust experiences (a consideration that doesn’t apply to the written pages of Wallant’s novel). For example, Wallant’s novel begins with Nazerman walking near the banks of the Harlem River, in New York, on his way to the pawnshop in Harlem (Edward Wallant Lewis, 1). In contrast to the novel, Lumet’s film begins in the picturesque German countryside at the outbreak of World War 11, before cutting to the contemporary urban sprawl of Levittown on New York’s Long Island. Indeed, it is several minutes after the beginning of the film before the viewer sees the streets of Harlem and the inside of the pawnshop.

Rod Steiger

Crucial to the success of The Pawnbroker was the casting of Rod Steiger as Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman. By the early 1960s, Steiger was already a seasoned television actor, with a list of important small screen roles to his credit. One of Steiger’s most notable small screen roles was playing the lead role of good-natured, but socially awkward bachelor Marty Marty Piletti in the original live New York television drama of Marty in 1953 (“Marty”, Internet Movie Database).

By the time he starred in The Pawnbroker, Rod Steiger had also appeared in some significant feature films, the most memorable being his first screen role as the lawyer, Charlie Malloy, in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando. Moreover, at the 1955 Academy Awards Steiger had received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his superb characterization of Charlie Malloy in On the Waterfront (“Rod Steiger: Awards”, Internet Movie Database).

Yet, in spite of his success, Rod Steiger was not a major Hollywood box office star when The Pawnbroker was released in 1965. Steiger was regarded as a character actor rather than a conventional Hollywood star. But he was still well enough known to attract viewers. At this stage in his career, Steiger also didn’t possess a distinctive screen persona that viewers could readily identify. However, not having a readily identifiable screen persona could be considered a distinct advantage when portraying a character such as Sol Nazerman: it allowed Steiger the flexibility to completely immerse himself in the challenging and complex role of a traumatized Holocaust survivor. Only in his late ‘30s when The Pawnbroker was made, Steiger brilliantly transforms himself into the much older, grey haired and grizzled Nazerman. It is a searing performance: intense and utterly compelling, an unforgettably, heart-wrenching portrayal that brings the traumatized character of Sol Nazerman vividly to life on the screen.

Rod Steiger’s performance is even more impressive given the fact that he is portraying a character with few if any redeeming features. Outwardly, Sol Nazerman is thoroughly unlikeable: cantankerous and embittered. Indeed, Nazerman is a character that many viewers would find difficult to watch on the screen. Most unsettlingly, Nazerman also appears to lack any kind of feeling or empathy towards other human beings. Nevertheless, as the film progresses, viewers will learn that Nazerman has insulated himself psychologically by attempting to resist any form of close personal relationship because he has been severely traumatized by his Holocaust experiences. Steiger’s riveting performance reveals the nuances of Nazerman’s increasingly traumatized state-of-mind; his anguished facial expressions (often shown in close-up) no longer able to conceal the pent-up traumatic emotional turmoil that he has been trying to suppress beneath the cold-hearted façade.

The onscreen representation of Nazerman’s traumatic past memories during the Holocaust (the death of his family and his incarceration at Auschwitz) certainly doesn’t excuse his appalling behaviour towards other human beings in the present. But it does provide a means by which viewers are able to empathize with Nazerman’s inner psychological turmoil as the film progresses, and they learn more about the increasing severity of his ongoing trauma (Hixen Walter,144).

For his memorable role in The Pawnbroker, Rod Steiger won the Silver Bear award for Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1964. In addition, Steiger was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor in 1966 (The Pawnbroker also received other accolades, among them the New York Film Critics award for Best Film and Best Director) (Jeff Stafford). At the Academy Awards in 1966, Rod Steiger was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role as Sol Nazerman in The Pawnbroker [the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role that year went to Lee Marvin for his portrayal of gunslinger, Kid Shelleen, in the western spoof Cat Bailou (Elliot Silverstein, 1965)]. Although overlooked for his outstanding performance in The Pawnbroker, Steiger would go on to win the coveted Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards in 1968 for his brilliant portrayal as the racist police chief Bill Gillespie in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) (“In the Heat of the Night”, Internet Movie Database).

Although the role of police chief Bill Gillespie won Rod Steiger the coveted Oscar in the memorable, In the Heat of the Night, he considers his characterization of Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman in The Pawnbroker to be his best on-screen performance. In an interview with Turner Movie Classics host Robert Osbourne for the Private Screenings series, Steiger discussed The Pawnbroker:

That’s my favourite. This is the story of a man whose family gets crushed to death in a boxcar when they’re taking them to Auschwitz. He’s at the other end of it and he can’t get there to save them and, of course, he couldn’t have saved them if he had ten thousand men with him. But he becomes obsessed with this guilt. Somehow he should have been able to do something. So this obsession makes him want to exist without living. Without participating. And I believe, whether you like it or not, if you breath you have some responsibility to the society which exists. That, to me, is my favourite film. Sol Nazerman (Private Screenings Series).

The Pawnbroker: Survivor Guilt and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

In The Pawnbroker, Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman has been severely emotionally traumatized by his horrific past experiences during the Holocaust. Moreover, it is also Nazerman’s powerlessness to prevent the deaths of his wife and his children (see analysis of the film below), which is central to his on-going trauma twenty-five years later. Consequently, Nazerman is suffering from survivor guilt; a condition that was first noticed among Holocaust survivors (Stewart William, 357). Survivor guilt can be described as a psychological condition, which occurs when individuals perceive themselves to have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. It is a condition that involves a deep sense of guilt, often combined with feelings of numbness, as well as a loss of interest in life ( In The Pawnbroker, Nazerman’s ongoing trauma and his attempt to suppress his horrific memories of the Holocaust is compounded by survivor guilt, which is manifested in his refusal to participate in the world around him, as well as a lack of engagement with other human beings. The result is that, in his present-day existence in Harlem, Nazerman continues to increasingly relive his traumatic past during the Holocaust (Michael Johnson, 294).

Although the term PSTD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) hadn’t yet been created when The Pawnbroker was released in 1965, Sol Nazerman also displays symptoms of this severely debilitating mental condition. In fact, it wasn’t until 1980, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, that the American Psychiatric Association finally acknowledged the long-recognized, but frequently ignored phenomenon by naming it: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (C. Caruth, ed.). The symptoms associated with PTSD include what had previously been referred to as shell-shock, combat stress, delayed stress syndrome, and traumatic neurosis, while also making reference to responses associated with both human and natural catastrophes (C. Caruth, 3). Based on the diagnostic category of PTSD, writer and trauma theorist Cathy Caruth provides a definition of trauma that pertains to Holocaust survivors such as Sol Nazerman in The Pawnbroker. Caruth defines trauma as, “A response, sometimes delayed, to an overwhelming event, or events, which takes the form of repeated hallucinations, dreams, thoughts, or behaviours stemming from the event, and possibly also increased arousal to (and avoidance of) stimuli recalling the event” (C. Caruth, 3).

Psychiatrist Bessel A Van der Kolk and psychotraumatologist Onno Van der Hart also provide a definition of trauma, which can be directly applied to the horrific memory flashbacks that Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman is experiencing in The Pawnbroker. Van der Kolk and Van der Hart emphasize that traumatic events can become so overwhelming for an individual that they cannot be integrated into existing mental frameworks and may return later as, “…physical sensations, horrific images or nightmares, behavioural reenactments, or a combination of these” (Bessel Van der Kolk, 164).

Film critic Joshua Hirsch also provides a specific reference to the representation of PSTD in The Pawnbroker and its affect on Sol Nazerman. Hirsch states that, “The film presents Sol as a kind of PTSD case study, complete with symptoms of emotional deadening, avoidance of trauma-associated stimuli, difficulty with anniversaries of traumatic events, and feelings of helplessness and shame” (Joshua Hirsch, 109) Hirsch also describes The Pawnbroker as an example of a feature film that demonstrates the possibilities for extending the notion of what he calls ‘post-traumatic narration’ beyond the traditional documentary form, and adapting this concept to a feature film with a fictional story. In addition, Hirsch also discusses the use of innovative cinematic techniques in The Pawnbroker; what he refers to as ‘post-traumatic flashback’ (Hirsch, 85). to represent Nazerman’s psychological state of mind, which results in ongoing horrific visions of the Holocaust and the brutality that he and his family experienced as prisoners of the Nazis.

Early in The Pawnbroker, these involuntary memory flashbacks are momentary, only lasting for a split second or two before Nazerman (and the viewer) is jolted back to the present. However, as the film progresses these flashbacks become more frequent and extended, as an increasingly traumatized Nazerman struggles unsuccessfully to suppress them.

The Pawnbroker: Technical Innovations

In The Pawnbroker, what Joshua Hirsch refers to as ‘post-traumatic flashback’ is brilliantly achieved by the use of sophisticated and innovative editing techniques developed by Sidney Lumet and editor Ralph Rosenblum, that highlight the extent of Sol Nazerman’s increasingly traumatized state of mind. The Pawnbroker largely takes place in contemporary Harlem, but the film is also punctuated intermittently by Nazerman’s involuntary memory flashbacks, which infiltrate the present with indelible traumatic memories of the past.

It’s also worth noting that Ralph Rosenblum cites Hiroshima Mon Amour, the groundbreaking first feature by French director and documentary filmmaker Alain Resnais, released in 1959, as a direct influence on the editing style of The Pawnbroker. Hiroshima Mon Amour utilizes inventive editing techniques, including several flashback sequences, as well as documentary footage of World War 11 to create a uniquely non-linear narrative (Ralph Rosenblum and Karen, Robert, 142). As Rosenblum explains, “Hiroshima was so innovative that it was inaccessible to most viewers; they found it confusing and disorientating. But it turned out to be an important work in motion picture history (as well as a direct influence on The Pawnbroker), in part because Resnais broke with the established pattern of showing flashbacks” (Rosenbaum and Karen, 142).

In addition, Rosenblum also referred to Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless (A Bout de Souffle, 1960) as another key influence on The Pawnbroker’s editing style Rosenblum and Karen, p. 142. In his book, When The Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story, Rosenblum discusses the influence of Breathless on The Pawnbroker:

Although the film has something of a gangster flavour, with Jean-Paul Belmondo playing the hood and Jean Seberg his pretty girlfriend, the greatest and most significant action was in Godard’s cuts…he jumped characters from location to location without the slightest concern for the time-honoured geography of cutting Rosenblum and Karen, p. 142. In the indirect way that a pioneer work influences everything that comes after it, the jump cuts initiated in Breathless allowed Lumet and me additional avenues of freedom in trying to solve the special problems with which The Pawnbroker script presented us (Rosenblum and Karen, p. 142).

In terms of its editing technique, The Pawnbroker is not as radical as either Hiroshima Mon Amour or Breathless. However, in The Pawnbroker Lumet and Rosenblum were able to successfully assimilate the technological advancements pioneered by both Hiroshima Mon Amour and Breathless in a way that was challenging and innovative, but which was not too far removed from traditional film form for viewers to understand (Rosenblum and Karen, p. 142).

Crucially, when making The Pawnbroker Sidney Lumet and Ralph Rosenblum were also faced with the technical dilemma of attempting to portray two levels of reality within Sol Nazerman’s traumatized psyche: his present-tense existence as a pawnbroker in Harlem and the horrific flashbacks to his Holocaust experiences twenty-five years earlier (MacMurdo-Reading, Margaret Ann, 194). The difficulty was how to show the intrusion of these traumatic memories on Nazerman’s psyche from his perspective. As Lumet explains:

Memory is difficult enough to do without becoming a cliché. But there was the double problem here. It wasn’t just memory. It was memory that was being fought. He didn’t want to remember any of this. So I simply went back to the simplest thing, which is how my own memory works if I’m trying to avoid something. It was quite a literal interpretation of what happens in my own head, which is that, if I’m fighting it will flash and flash and finally it smashes through of it’s own volition (Sidney Lumet, in Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust).

In The Pawnbroker, the cinematic technique used to show the intrusion of horrific memories of the Holocaust and Auschwitz that Nazerman is experiencing psychologically is based on quick shock cuts. As Lumet states, “I began with the basis that for Sol the past is not past, it is much more present than what is going on at the moment around him. This is a man who is in such agony that he must feel nothing or he will go to pieces” (Joanna Rafe, (Ed) p.15).

The flashback sequences in The Pawnbroker were laid out using a combination of one frame, two frame and three frame cuts of increasing rapidity. As the sequence progresses, these rapid cuts are extended to six frames, with the flashbacks being revealed in more detail (Joanna Rafe, (Ed) p.15).

Sidney Lumet discusses this flashback technique in greater detail:

The old idea was that it took three frames for an image to register on the eye, that the eye could not retain an image for less than three frames. So the first time we used this quick cutting device was when it was a question of taking an idea and moving it from an intellectualization to a good technique, to make it something that will work for an audience. In the first sequence the cuts are not nearly as short as later, they are six frames because I knew that the first time I used it the shock to an audience would be enormous anyway, and clarity was the important thing; the following time I used four, then two frames, and by the third sequence I was using just two and one frame cuts… you see it, which shows that the eye can absorb this if it is led into it gently enough (Joanna Rafe, (Ed) p.15).

Most importantly, it is Sol Nazerman’s memory flashbacks to his Holocaust experiences and imprisonment in Auschwitz, which are integral to the viewer’s identification with, and understanding of, Nazerman’s ongoing trauma. Furthermore, as The Pawnbroker progresses and viewers witness more of Nazerman’s flashbacks to the horrors of what he has experienced during the Holocaust, they are able to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how these traumatic past memories are impinging on his behaviour in the present.


Trauma and Memory in The Pawnbroker

The Pawnbroker opens with a disorientating scene. Before the opening credits have even begun, the viewer is presented with what appears to be a series of dreamlike images shot in slow motion. These images seem like a recollected memory from the past: an idyllic setting in the countryside, with a glistening river and the sun shining brightly. The scene begins with a close-up of what turns out to be a boy’s outstretched arms as he attempts to catch an elusive butterfly, while a young blond-haired girl looks on. A series of cuts follow: a long shot of the luminous countryside, with the same girl and boy happily running through a lush field of tall grass stirring up butterflies; a young dark-haired woman fetching water in a jug from a crystal-clear stream; a long shot of a youthful, dark-haired man reading as he sits underneath a tree; then back again to the joyful and radiant woman, her long dark hair flowing in the breeze as she holds a loaf of bread in her hand. The viewer will soon learn that the man is a young Sol Nazerman and the beautiful, radiant woman is his wife Ruth. The two young children are their son and daughter. Ruth then opens her mouth and calls to the youthful Nazerman as he sits under the tree. But no words can be heard. In fact, there is no dialogue in this entire scene, only the slightly unsettling soundtrack, overlaid with lush strings, as well as harpsichord, flutes and woodwind instrumentation.

As the scene progresses, there is another cut to an elderly couple relaxing under a maple tree on a picnic blanket with a basket of food in front of them. They smile at the two children. The elderly man is an Orthodox Jew, signified by his brimless cap (referred to in Jewish as a yarmulke), as well as his side curls. He plays chess. Then a further cut back to Nazerman, strong, handsome and virile. Nazerman smiles and waits for his son and daughter to run towards him. The next scene is in slow motion, as Nazerman drops a wine bottle on the grass and kneels to grasp the two children as they leap into his arms. With a child’s head over each shoulder, he turns, playfully whirling the children through the air. The camera then moves to a close-up of the boy’s face as his smile suddenly turns to fright. Each of the other characters are all quickly glimpsed as they look up and see something outside the frame that drains the happiness from their faces. There is a cut back to Nazerman in slow motion as he freezes, a look of terror now clearly visible on his face. He lets the children slide slowly from his grasp, putting a hand over the back of his son’s head as if to protect him.

Suddenly, the film cuts abruptly to the present, with a long overhead shot of a much older man reclining on a lawn chair in the backyard of a suburban house, framed by a row of indistinguishable white houses with identical backyards, manicured lawns and wooden fences. As the camera zooms in, this man is revealed to be a much older version of the young, dark-haired Sol Nazerman who appeared in the opening scene. Nazerman now has thinning white hair and looks grizzled-with-age. He is almost unrecognizable from the young, strong, dark-haired man with such vitality in the opening few minutes of the film.

It is worth noting that Jeremy Maron, in his article: ‘Bringing the Psychological Past Into The Physical Present: The Formal and Narrative Emergence of Traumatic Memory in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker’, makes an important distinction between the opening minutes of the film with its idyllic picnic scene, and later flashback sequences that occur from Nazerman’s perspective, which emphasize his ongoing trauma. Maron asserts that, unlike later traumatic flashback sequences to horrific memories of the Holocaust and his imprisonment in Auschwitz, which are triggered by various sights and sounds that Nazerman sees and hears in present day Harlem when fully conscious, the opening scene in the film appears to be a dream that he is having. As the film cuts from the opening scene in the past, to the present, with Nazerman reclining in the backyard of a suburban house, his eyes are closed and he seems to be sleeping (Jeremy Maron, 64) Indeed, it is the voice of Bertha, Nazerman’s sister-in-law, which appears to wake him from his dream.

Living in this new estate in Levittown, Bertha and her family have fully embraced the uniformity of the suburban American middle-class life of the 1960s. Bertha reminds Nazerman that it is, “Twenty-five years next Thursday. Did you know that Sol”? To which Nazerman replies with a world-weary, “Yes.” Bertha is referring to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of her sister, Nazerman’s wife, Ruth, who was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz. To reinforce the importance of this anniversary, as well as the trauma that Nazerman continues to experience twenty-five years after the death of his wife, what follows are several momentary subjective flashbacks of Ruth from Nazerman’s perspective; repeated images from the opening scene of that beautiful, vibrant dark-haired woman.

Bertha is enthusiastically trying to persuade Nazerman to pay for a trip to Europe for her and Selig. Bertha says to Nazerman: “Sol, all you have to say is yes or no.” To which Nazerman replies, “A final yes or no to what?” Bertha then states, “The Trip to Europe.” When Nazerman wearily asks Bertha why she wants to go to Europe, she replies, “Mostly it’s him [Selig]. He says it will be very good for his standing with the school board if he went there. And he’s always wanted to visit there anyhow. The shrines. The old cities. There’s an atmosphere we don’t have here.” Selig also adds: “Age lends its own charm. Why, you can almost smell the difference.” To which Nazerman replies sarcastically, “It’s rather like a stink if I remember.” This exchange between Bertha and Nazerman highlights the differences between their attitudes to Europe based on their individual experiences. Bertha seems to have a romanticized vision of Europe, and it’s cultural and historical heritage. In stark contrast, it appears that Nazerman has a very different attitude to Europe based on his own horrific and traumatic memories of the Holocaust. Moreover, the ‘stink’ Nazerman refers to could possibly be interpreted as the smell of death at Auschwitz, and the bodies piling up outside the crematoriums after prisoners have been exterminated in the gas chambers.

The Pawnbroker then shifts dramatically, with a series of shots of Nazerman driving over the Triborough Bridge in New York, paying the road toll, and entering Harlem on his way to work. It’s now several minutes into the film and the opening credits begin to roll, overlaid with Quincy Jones’s mournful, slightly discordant jazz soundtrack, underscored with prominent piano and brass. Significantly, The Pawnbroker was the first Hollywood feature to be scored by an African-American, Quincy Jones, who began his career as a jazz trumpeter before becoming an arranger, producer and songwriter. He would go on to write scores for some of the best-known Hollywood films of the 1960s, including In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967) and In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967) (Daniel Egan, 612).

What follows are various shots of Harlem as it looked in the early 1960s. It is gritty and teeming with life. Vacant lots, rubbish strewn on the streets, fruit stalls, old rundown shop fronts, with an assortment of mostly black Afro-Americans and Hispanics hanging around on street corners. Intriguingly, there is also a brief scene of an old shop front in Harlem with rows of shoes stacked up inside the window. This scene appears to be a reference to infamous newsreel footage of the extermination camps with personal belongings such as shoes piled up, which were taken from Jewish victims before they were killed in the gas chambers. In addition, repeated scenes in The Pawnbroker of an elevated train in Harlem outside the pawnshop could possibly also be interpreted as a reference to the transport cattle trains arriving at Auschwitz containing Jewish prisoners. It is also worth noting that the identification of these scenes with images of the Holocaust are reliant on viewers’ recollections of newsreel footage from the liberation of the concentration camps, which had been widely shown by the time the film was released in 1965.

In the following scene, the viewer is introduced to Jesus Ortiz, Nazerman’s young Puerto Rican assistant in the pawnshop. Ortiz lives with his mother in a cluttered, run down one room apartment. The living area is so cramped that Ortiz has to wash in a bathtub next to the kitchen facilities. In spite of living in poverty, Ortiz is optimistic, full of energy, confident and ambitious. Ortiz believes the job, as Nazerman’s assistant, is an important stepping-stone to improving his life and becoming a successful businessman. Ortiz is the antithesis of the aging, cynical and world-weary Nazerman. Ortiz says enthusiastically to his mother, “I don’t worry mama. You know why? Because I’m going a long way mama.” However, the next exchange between Ortiz and his mother hints that there is another, more dubious, side to him. Worried, his mother warns Ortiz, “Hey son. No more trouble. No more things like that.” To which Ortiz replies adamantly, “No more mama. No more stealing. No more numbers. No more peddling. No more nothin’. Strictly legit, okay.”

Most importantly, it is the relationship between Jesus Ortiz and Sol Nazerman that will ultimately determine the tragic outcome of The Pawnbroker. Indeed, it will be Nazerman’s rejection of Ortiz later in the film (see analysis below) that will result in the gut-wrenching conclusion to the film.

Many scenes in The Pawnbroker take place inside the confines of the pawnshop. Moreover, the interior of the pawnshop can be viewed as a visual representation of Nazerman’s sense of entrapment, both physically and psychologically, which stems from his ongoing trauma. The shop is designed like a prison. There is an iron gate that pulls across the front window and the doorway of the shop. The inside of the shop is carefully designed as a series of cages with wire mesh, bars, locks and alarms, all of which reinforce Nazerman’s sense of entrapment (Sidney Lumet, Making Movies, 102).

The first scene inside the pawnshop depicts a world-weary Nazerman dealing with customers as he stands behind a counter that is surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling chain-linked metal cage. In the shop, Nazerman is continually shrouded by this jail-like structure of bars and grids, which creates an eerie image of enclosure and incarceration. Meticulous lighting by cinematographer Boris Kaufman also casts prison-like shadows on Nazerman’s face and body. It is a striking effect, which can be interpreted as a visual representation of Nazerman’s ongoing traumatic memories of the Holocaust and his imprisonment in Auschwitz (Wendy Zierler, 51).

These early scenes in The Pawnbroker also establish Nazerman as a man who displays no outward emotion. Nor does Nazerman appear to show any empathy for the hapless customers who come into the shop wishing to pawn their belongings and valuables, in order to survive. In fact, Nazerman barely engages with the customers. For each item they bring to him, Nazerman names his price (a figure that is always lower than what his customers are asking). Nazerman sticks to his price with a detached and bored implacability, no matter what the customers say, or how much they plead with him. However, as the film progresses, viewers will learn that Nazerman has psychologically insulated himself from the world around him; he is suppressing his emotions (which is becoming increasing difficult) because of severe ongoing trauma that originates from horrific experiences during the Holocaust.

Marilyn Birchfield

One particular customer stands out from the assortment of impoverished down-and-outs, petty thieves, and other hapless individuals who come into the shop. Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is a breath of fresh air. Birchfield is a likeable, upbeat and well-meaning social worker. She is also not put off by Nazerman’s cold and callous demeanor. Indeed, it is Birchfield who perceptively senses the tortured, lonely soul behind Nazerman’s seemingly impenetrable façade. She also makes a determined effort to empathize with him.

As Birchfield enters the shop, she cheerily introduces herself to Nazerman. She works for a new youth centre down the block and wants to know if Nazerman would like to sponsor one of the children’s teams; possibly even devote one evening a week to coaching the basketball team. Nazerman’s acerbic response is cutting: “Basketball. You must be joking.” He also adds caustically, “If you’re looking for a handout, why don’t you say so.” Undaunted, Birchfield persists. She replies, “I think that everything you can do for these children is an investment in one’s own future.” Nazerman’s deadpan retort provides an insight into his troubled psyche: “I’m not particularly concerned with the future.” Birchfield responds by asking, “You always think the worst of everyone?” To which Nazerman replies cynically, “A lot of people come in here collecting. Blind people with 20/20 vision. Deaf people who can hear the tumblers on my safe when I dial the combination. So, with this experience, I say, why not you?” Rather than walk away in exasperation, Birchfield challenges Nazerman: “All right, why not me? How much are you willing to give? You see I have no pride. And since you’ve been so co-operative, I’ll come back again and again, and again.”

Later in the film, Marilyn Birchfield will return to the shop and invite Nazerman for lunch in the local park. Detached and distracted, Nazerman will inadvertently agree to have lunch with Birchfield. When they meet in the park, Nazerman endeavors to distance himself from Birchfield, both physically and psychologically. Intuitively, Birchfield attempts to pierce Nazerman’s steely façade. Undaunted, she asks Nazerman directly, “You were in a concentration camp, weren’t you?” As Birchfield continues to probe Nazerman, he becomes increasingly agitated. As Nazerman gets up and walks away, he callously retorts, “……Ms Birchfield, you have made the afternoon very tedious with your constant search for an answer. And one more thing. Please stay out of my life.”

Significantly, as Nazerman’s life begins to progressively unravel due to his ongoing trauma, he will voluntarily make contact again with Marilyn Birchfield later in the film. After a confrontation with Rodriguez at his apartment, Nazerman is finally forced to face the reality that his paycheck is coming from the proceeds of the local brothel (adding insult to injury, Rodriguez tries to force Nazerman to sign papers, which further reinforces his duplicity in the facilitation of money laundering). Increasingly traumatized and desperate for human connection, Nazerman will decide to visit Birchfield at her apartment. After a lonely night of wandering the streets of New York aimlessly, Nazerman, bleary-eyed, scruffy and unshaven knocks on the door of Birchfield’s apartment as the morning dawns. Birchfield answers the door, still in her dressing gown. Staggering through the door, Nazerman collapses on the sofa. Birchfield is initially curious, with a look of concern on her face. But she also seems pleased to see Nazerman. It appears that Birchfield empathizes with Nazerman because, like him, she is also desperately lonely. She says to him, “I was out on the terrace when you phoned. I couldn’t sleep.”

Severely traumatized and also increasingly vulnerable, Nazerman begins to open up and talk about his life in Germany before the war. Birchfield asks Nazerman: “What made you come here?” In a rare moment of candor, Nazerman confesses to Birchfield: “Things have been happening lately and I felt I needed to be with someone.” As Birchfield probes into Nazerman’s traumatized psyche, he continues to respond: “Well, it’s just that suddenly in the last few days I feel afraid. It’s been a long time since I felt…” (Nazerman pauses momentarily and Birchfield adds: “anything”). Nazerman then continues: “….fear…fear…fear, that’s what I felt. Then I called you.” Birchfield’s empathetic reply is: “I’m sorry that you’re so alone.” To which Nazerman cryptically responds: “Oh, no, no, you don’t understand. It’s just that there have been memories that I have …well… I thought that I had pushed them far away from me and they keep rushing in. And then they’re words… words that I thought that I’d kept myself from hearing. Now…now they flood my mind.”

Most importantly, Nazerman’s uncharacteristic candour also appears to be triggered by this day (Thursday, October 4) being the anniversary of the death of his wife, Ruth, in Auschwitz (Nazerman’s young son and daughter also died during the Holocaust). As Nazerman reveals to Birchfield: “Today is an anniversary. ….I didn’t die. Everything that I loved was taken away from me and I did not die. …There was nothing I could do…nothing…strange, I could do nothing…no, there was nothing I could do.”

Crucially, this scene on the terrace of Marilyn Birchfield’s apartment is the only instance in the film where Nazerman discusses his Holocaust experiences in any detail. Furthermore, Nazerman’s responses to Birchfield also indicate the traumatic implications of his survivor guilt, which originates from his inability to do anything to save the life of his wife and children, in particular, his son, who slips off his shoulders in the crowded cattle car en-route to Auschwitz and is crushed to death (see analysis of this scene below) (Maron, p.63.)

Back inside the apartment, Birchfield reaches across to Nazerman with her outstretched arm, hoping that he will make physical contact by taking her hand. But Nazerman just sits on the sofa, detached, pitiful, a crumpled heap. Birchfield realizes that there is nothing more she can do to help Nazerman. Slowly, without uttering a word, Nazerman raises himself from the sofa, walks slowly towards the door and lets himself out: a figure who appears to be more like the walking dead, than a living human being.

An Attempt To Halt Time

Another indication of Sol Nazerman’s ongoing trauma and the attempt to repress horrific memories of the past is exemplified by his refusal to let anyone change the date on the calendar in the shop. Indeed, an emphasis on the calendar date will become a motif throughout the film. The first indication of Nazerman’s obsession with the date on the calendar occurs in an early scene as he prepares to close the shop at the end of the day. The date on the calendar is shown as Saturday, September 29. As Ortiz is about to change the date to the following working day, Monday, October 1, Nazerman abruptly tells him to stop. When Ortiz asks why, Nazerman retorts: “Don’t ask me how come. Just do what I tell you to do. Leave the calendar alone and go home.” Later in the scene, the importance of the date on the calendar will again be emphasized. As Nazerman closes the front door of the shop, he looks through the iron-gate; once again fixated on the calendar. A close-up of Nazerman’s face is then juxtaposed with a close-up of the date on the calendar.

Another important reference to the date on the calendar in the shop will appear later in the film. In spite of Nazerman’s protestations, a crony of Rodriguez will change the date of the calendar to read Wednesday, October 3. That date will remain unchanged for the remainder of the film. Crucially, Wednesday, October 3, is a particularly significant date because on the following morning, Thursday, October 4, an increasingly traumatized Nazerman will visit Marilyn Birchfield at her apartment (see analysis above). Nazerman will also indicate to Birchfield that this day, Thursday, October 4, is the anniversary of the death of his wife Ruth in Auschwitz. Therefore, Nazerman’s vehement refusal to let anyone change the date of the calendar in the shop appears to be an attempt to halt time: a way of suppressing his traumatic memories of the past. However, try as he might, an increasingly traumatized Nazerman is unable to forget his horrific Holocaust experiences, which are progressively impinging on his life in the present.

A Recurring Nightmare

As The Pawnbroker progresses, Sol Nazerman’s ongoing trauma will be represented in a series of momentary, but increasingly frequent subjective flashback sequences. The first flashback sequence in the film returns Nazerman psychologically to the horrors of his experiences during the Holocaust and his incarceration at Auschwitz. In only a few minutes, this flashback sequence repeatedly alternates between the horrors of the concentration camp and the gritty streets of contemporary Harlem.

After having closed the shop for the night, Nazerman walks forlornly down a darkened street on the way to his car, past run-down tenements and rows of trashcans. As he walks, Nazerman hears the sound of a dog barking insistently nearby. This sound triggers a momentary flashback to Auschwitz: a Nazi officer is running, with a large dog straining on a leash in front of him and barking loudly. They are chasing a prisoner, Nazerman’s friend (and Tessie’s husband), Rubin (Marc Alexander), who is desperately attempting to scale the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp.

The sequence then returns to the present and Harlem, as Nazerman turns around and sees a gang beating a youth in a vacant tenement block behind a barbed wire fence (which can be interpreted as a visual reference to Nazerman’s flashback to Auschwitz and the barbed wire fence that Rubin is attempting to climb). This scene in Harlem once again triggers a flashback: a return to Auschwitz, with a scared and shaking Nazerman, his head shaved and a Star of David visible on his prison uniform (the yellow star is generally recognized as a modern symbol of Jewish identity. The Nazis resurrected it during the Holocaust as a way of dehumanizing the Jews, marking them as different and inferior). In this scene, Nazerman and a couple of other prisoners watch helplessly as his friend Rubin hangs precariously on to the barbed wire fence. This flashback of Rubin hanging on the barbed wire fence is then juxtaposed with another cut back to contemporary Harlem, with the youth hanging on to the barbed wire fence of the vacant lot (before the gang members pull him back down to the ground). Again, there is another momentary flashback to Rubin at Auschwitz, bloodied and weak, as he slowly looses his grip on the barbed wire and slides down the fence. The sound of the growling dog increases as it wraps its jaws around Rubin’s ankles. A moment later, the flashback ends with Rubin’s blood-curdling scream. Presumably, he is about to be killed.

The sequence once again cuts back from Auschwitz to contemporary Harlem. As Nazerman approaches his car, the gang fight continues in the background (it is interesting to note that an African-American couple walk by, seemingly oblivious to what is happening; the inference appears to be that gang fights like this are common on the streets of Harlem and nobody takes any notice). As he opens his car door, Nazerman puts a handkerchief to his mouth. These intrusive, traumatic memories seem to be making him physically ill. As he drives away, Nazerman has yet another momentary flashback to Rubin hanging on the barbed wire fence at Auschwitz. Seemingly in a trance, Nazerman slams on the breaks in front of a pedestrian. In the ultimate indignity for Nazerman, the irate pedestrian approaches the driver’s window and yells at him: “What are you? A nut or something? You moron.”

Sidney Lumet elaborates on the process of filming this technically complex flashback sequence in The Pawnbroker. As he explains:

I adopted the three frame recognition rule and made the first cut into the concentration camp four frames (for safety), one-sixth of a second. Originally, I had intended to make a second cut a different image, lasting longer, perhaps six or eight frames (one-forth to one-third of a second). But I found that this produced too clear a memory breakthrough too soon. I reasoned that if I used the same image during the breakthrough time, I could reduce the cut to two frames (one twelfth of a second). Even if people didn’t quite understand the image the first time, they would after it had been repeated two or three times (Lumet, Making Movies, p. 159). I now had the technical solution for the subconscious memories forcing themselves into Nazerman’s conscious mind. If the oncoming image was complex, I felt free to repeat it in two frame cuts as often as necessary until it became clear. As the scene continued, I could lengthen the images to four frames, eight frames, sixteen frames, and so on in a mathematical progression until they took over and the flashback could now be played out in full (Lumet, Making Movies, p. 159).

Nazerman also has another series of momentary flashbacks to Auschwitz, which are triggered by an engagement ring brought into the shop by a pregnant young woman. The engagement over, the forlorn young woman now wants to pawn her ring. As she tentatively approaches the counter, Nazerman asks her impatiently, “What can I do for you? What do you want?” The girl replies timidity, “My diamond engagement ring. I want to borrow.” Nazerman looks down at the ring and tells her flatly, without emotion, “It’s glass.” To which she responds meekly, “He said it was real.” Nazerman continues to stare at the ring on the girl’s finger, which triggers a series of flashbacks to Auschwitz: there is a line of prisoners, their hands outstretched over a barbed wire fence and their fingers extended. A Nazi soldier methodically plucks off the rings from each finger before the prisoners are sent to their death in the gas chambers. This sequence oscillates between close-ups of Nazerman’s expressionless face, the sad young girl, and a series of increasingly longer subjective flashbacks of the outstretched hands on the barbed wire fence at Auschwitz. Later in the sequence, these flashbacks are overlaid with the sound of Marilyn Birchfield’s voice, as she invites Nazerman to join her for lunch in the local park.

This traumatic flashback sequence further reinforces Nazerman’s increasingly fragile psychological state. Nazerman has now become so traumatized by his Holocaust experiences that he is no longer able to suppress the horrific memories from his past. They are increasingly infiltrating the reality of his life in the present, becoming more frequent, uncontrollable and overwhelming.

As the film progresses, Nazerman will experience another series of horrific flashbacks while in the pawnshop as he confronts Mabel Wheatly (Thelma Oliver), a Harlem prostitute, who is also the girlfriend of Jesus Ortiz. After hearing Nazerman assert that: “Money is the whole thing”, Jesus Ortiz is desperate to get hold of some extra cash, so that he can stay out of trouble and start his own business as a pawnbroker. Mabel is also pleading with Ortiz to stay away from bad influences. She offers to help Ortiz by pawning a locket given to her by a customer for a private session.

The sequence begins with Mabel arriving at the shop and showing Nazerman the locket. Deadpan, Nazerman replies, “I’ll give you twenty dollars for it.” To which Mabel replies indignantly, “Twenty dollars. It’s worth at least one hundred.” Desperate, Mabel decides to hustle, in order to get the extra money. Suddenly, the telephone in the shop rings. It is a distraught Tessie ringing to tell Nazerman that her father Mendel is dead. However, Nazerman refuses to leave the shop to help Tessie. As Nazerman speaks to Tessie on the telephone, his cold and callous response to her is, “You bury him. There’s nothing else to do.”

As this sequence continues, Nazerman is finding it increasingly hard to suppress his emotions. Distraught, Nazerman slumps down on a couch, with his head in his hands. As he glances up at Mabel standing in front of him, Nazerman has another momentary flashback to Auschwitz and the face of his young wife Ruth. Returning to the present, Mabel starts talking to Nazerman about her boss Rodriguez, which only exacerbates his ongoing trauma. Mabel describes Rodriguez as: “The big man. The boss. The biggest in Harlem.” She also adds, “He’s got lots of irons in the fire. He’s a powerful man. So it’s best if you don’t tell him a thing.” It’s at this moment Nazerman realizes that Mabel’s boss is Rodriguez, the overbearing pimp who pays his wage. So detached has Nazerman become from the reality of the world around him, he has been unaware that Rodriguez makes money from the proceeds of a brothel (as well as being involved in other dubious activities).

As the sequence progresses, Mabel begins to proposition Nazerman by taking off her dress and exposing her breasts (it was a very controversial scene at time. See description above). Mabel says to Nazerman, “I’ve got to get some extra money.” As the sequence develops, and Mabel attempts to entice Nazerman to look at her, his flashbacks continue, becoming more frequent. Juxtaposed with the sight of Mabel’s breasts, Nazerman has a series of momentary flashbacks to his wife Ruth, stripped to the waist, her breasts exposed, sitting on the edge of a bed in a walled room at Auschwitz, in what appears to be a makeshift brothel. There is then another cut to a group of prisoners at Auschwitz, including Nazerman, marching along near the barracks as heavy rain pelts down. A much longer flashback follows, with a medium close-up of Nazerman as he turns and sees a jeep full of Nazi soldiers laughing and joking. They are presumably on their way to the brothel. A Nazi officer grabs Nazerman by the collar and drags him roughly along the ground towards the barracks. The officer then rams Nazerman’s shaved head through a glass window, forcing him to watch helplessly as a couple of Nazi officers, laughing and joking, wash and touch Ruth as she stands underneath the shower completely naked.

As the sequence continues, there is a series of additional momentary flashbacks, back and forth, between close-ups of Nazerman’s anguished face in the present (these close-ups are also overlaid with Mabel’s voice, imploring Nazerman to look at her) and the brothel at Auschwitz with Ruth, naked on the bed, as a Nazi officer enters the room (the inference being that he is about to sexually abuse her). These scenes are also intercut with a split second flashback of Ruth as the lively, radiant, young woman at the picnic in the countryside at the beginning of the film, before the being captured by the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust.

The meticulously executed flashbacks in this sequence finish in the present with a traumatized Nazerman covering Mabel’s breasts and pressing some money into her hand. As Mabel gathers her clothes and leaves the shop, the camera zooms in to a close-up of Nazerman’s anguished face as he tenses up and lets out an agonizing howl.

Another crucial flashback sequence in The Pawnbroker that epitomizes Nazerman’s increasingly traumatized state of mind occurs late in the film when he boards a New York subway train. By this point in the film, Nazerman seems to have become almost totally disconnected from the reality of the world around him, which is exemplified by his traumatic flashbacks becoming longer and more frequent. As Nazerman boards the subway car and sits down, he looks at the lifeless face and blank starring eyes of a middle-age man near him. Feeling uneasy, Nazerman gets up and walks down the subway car. He glances down at another male passenger, who looks back at him with the same lifeless stare. The lifeless faces and blank stares of the passengers then trigger a series of flashbacks to the horror of the Holocaust and a cattle car crammed with Jewish prisoners, including Nazerman and his family, en-route to Auschwitz.

As the sequence develops there is a point-of-view shot from Nazerman’s perspective, with the camera panning around the inside of the subway car as he observes the lifeless passengers who are staring blankly. Nazerman then has a series of memory flashbacks to the Holocaust, with his observations of the lifeless passengers in the subway car transitioning into a scene of Jewish prisoners crammed inside the cattle car bound for Auschwitz. What follows is a series of seamless intercuts back and forth between the passengers on the subway train and the Jewish prisoners in the cattle car. As the sequence continues these traumatic flashbacks from the past increase in length, progressively overwhelming Nazerman’s psychological connection with the reality of the present.

Later in this sequence, Nazerman runs to the end of the subway carriage in what appears to be a desperate attempt to escape from these horrific memories. But there is no escape. As Nazerman opens the carriage door of the subway car, he returns psychologically to the crowded and claustrophobic hellhole of the cattle car en-route to Auschwitz. What follows is an extended flashback with Nazerman’s horrific past memories of being trapped with his family in the cattle car now completely overtaking his life in the present. The use of sound is also brilliantly used to link the present and the past. As Nazerman opens the door at the end of the subway car and looks out, the sound of a train signal bell in the present segues into the sound of a baby screaming in the middle of the crowded cattle car on its way to Auschwitz in the past.

Near the end of the sequence, the camera focuses on a young Sol Nazerman as he stands, fatigued, surrounded by a mass of bodies in the cattle car. He is pressed together in a forced standing position with other exhausted and sick prisoners on their way to Auschwitz; head slumped and eyes closed; his young son draped precariously over his shoulders. Buffeted by prisoners around him as the cattle car shakes and shudders, Nazerman, becoming weaker, is unable to maintain a grip on his son. In a desperate panic, Nazerman calls out to his wife Ruth as his son slips lifelessly to the floor of the cattle car and is trampled to death.

For Sidney Lumet, the three-fame recognition rule reached its fruition with this flashback sequence on the subway car. As he explains:

Slowly the subway car becomes the railway car that carried his family to the extermination camp. The entire transition stretched over a period of a minute. Starting with two frame cuts, I gradually replaced one car with the other. In other words, as I cut in two frames of railway car, it replaced two frames of the shot in the subway car. When I used a four-frame cut of the railway car, it replaced four frames of the subway car, and so on until the subway car became the railway car. As the intensity kept mounting, Nazerman rushed to another subway car to escape the memory. He wildly pulled open the connecting door, and we cut to the filled railway car, proceeding from there to play out the flashback scene in its entirety. What made the sequence even more visually exciting was that I shot both the subway car and the railway car in the 360-degree pan. With the camera in the centre of each car, we rotated a full circle. So when we cut the two different shots together, we could match the same arch of the circle. The picture was always in motion, both in the past and in the present (Lumet, Making Movies, p. 159).

Sol Nazerman: Feelings of Guilt? The Possibility of Redemption?

As The Pawnbroker nears its tragic conclusion, the outcome for both Jesus Ortiz and Sol Nazerman will be devastating. Indeed, Ortiz will pay the ultimate price with his life. Throughout the film, Ortiz has enthusiastically looked up to Nazerman is a mentor, eager to learn about the pawnshop business as an alternative pathway to a life of crime. However, in a final, crushing blow for Ortiz, Nazerman will cruelly and caustically tell his young assistant: “You’re like the rest of them out there. You’re nothing to me”. This abject rejection of Ortiz by Nazerman represents a tragic turning point in the film. Spurned by Nazerman, Ortiz will now finally succumb to the demands of his three unsavoury associates and acquiesce to help them rob the pawnshop by stealing cash from the safe.

In the scene that follows, Ortiz and his associates enter the pawnshop with the intention of robbing the safe (with one of the thugs brandishing a gun). But Nazerman refuses to hand over the money inside the safe. Nazerman has no intention of giving these thugs any money as he reaches down and locks the door of the safe. Moreover, Nazerman no longer cares whether or not he lives or he dies (an attitude that is emphasized in an earlier scene when Rodriguez comes to the shop and demands that Nazerman sign papers, which will implicate himself in money laundering. Nazerman refuses and challenges Rodriguez to kill him). As the scene continues, the barrel of the gun held by one of the thugs is pointed directly at Nazerman. Looking on, Ortiz appears to have a split-second change of heart. He rushes to the counter to protect Nazerman from being shot. Ortiz manages to turn the gun away from Nazerman, but is fatally shot with that same bullet. In a terrible irony, Ortiz has made a decision to protect Nazerman from being shot. However, it is this fateful decision that has resulted in his own tragic death: shot by one of his co-conspirators. Crucially, it can also be argued that the attempted robbery and the role of Ortiz in it, which results in his fatal shooting, can be directly linked to how Nazerman has cruelly and callously treated his young assistant.

As the other cronies scatter, Ortiz, still alive, but bleeding profusely from the gun shot wound, manages to crawl along on his stomach through the doorway of the shop, then collapses on the rain-soaked pavement outside. Sidney Lumet describes shooting this dramatic scene on the streets of Harlem. As he explains:

For that scene, we had three hidden cameras outside the shop. When the shots went off inside the pawnshop, neighbourhood people were walking by. They were unaware a movie was being made. We just decided to fire the gun and let it happen. Whether it’s through my own knowledge of the city or something else, I can’t explain. I had the confidence to know something extraordinary would happen – and it did (Joanna Rapf, 65).

As a mortally wounded Ortiz lies on the pavement outside the shop, a police car arrives, and then a crowd starts to gather, followed by an ambulance with its siren wailing. The distraught mother of Ortiz also rushes down the street to the aid of her son. Various street scenes, including neighbours staring curiously from apartment windows are juxtaposed with shots of Nazerman, who remains inside the shop. Several close-ups of Nazerman’s face seem to reveal that he is struggling to mentally process the emotionally overwhelming events of the last few moments. Could it be that Nazerman’s detached, steely façade is now being replaced by sorrow and remorse? In the most tragic of ironies, is it possible that the fatal shooting of Ortiz may have finally forced Nazerman to confront the devastating consequences of his behaviour towards his young assistant?

Finally, Nazerman staggers outside the shop into the busy, rain soaked street and crouches over Ortiz. As Nazerman cups the dying man’s head in his hands, Ortiz mouths the heart-wrenching words: “I said, no shooting.” What follows is one of the most powerful and unforgettable scenes in the history of the cinema. As Nazerman crouches over the dying Ortiz, there is a close-up of his anguished and contorted face. Nazerman then opens his mouth to scream, but no sound is heard. In an interview many years later, Rod Steiger recalled this extraordinary scene in The Pawnbroker as one of his most memorable acting experiences. As he explained:

The end, when he [Nazerman] comes out and the boy’s been shot, I had one of the best moments I’ve ever had in acting. I was involved. I was upset. I was crying. And then my intellect came in. I was supposed to scream, “Don’t make a sound”. I put my head back and I did a silent scream, which was twice as powerful as if I would have screamed because you put your scream in my mouth (Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust).

Significantly, Sol Nazerman’s ‘silent scream’ has been interpreted in different ways. For example, does the action of this silent scream suggest a genuine sense of mourning; that perhaps through the tragic death of Ortiz, Nazerman may finally be able to psychologically come to terms with his traumatic memories of the Holocaust and the death of his family? Or, alternatively, is this silent scream emblematic of Nazerman’s continued inability to express his emotions (the pain and the anguish that he appears to be feeling with the death of Ortiz) because of his ongoing trauma, triggered by horrific memories of the Holocaust? (J. Maron, 68). More broadly, Nazerman’s silent scream has also been interpreted as emblematic of the Holocaust survivor who has witnessed horror so devastating, so beyond the reality of normal human experience, that it cannot be expressed audibly (A. Insdorf, 31).

In the final heart-wrenching minutes of The Pawnbroker, Nazerman gets up from his crouching position next to the lifeless body of Ortiz. He realizes that Ortiz is dead. Looking down at his bloodied hands, Nazerman then returns to the inside of the shop. Standing at the counter, Nazerman stares at the sharp pawn ticket spike that he uses to collect receipts. Nazerman then has a series of momentary flashbacks, which again emphasizes his ongoing trauma. These flashbacks include the faces of various customers from the shop, as well as Tessie, Mendel, Marilyn Birchfield and Jesus Ortiz.

What follows is an excruciating scene. Severely traumatized and possibly also racked with overwhelming guilt stemming from the death of Ortiz, Nazerman slowly begins to impale the palm of his left hand on the pawn ticket spike. As Quincy Jones’ unsettling jazz soundtrack, with discordant trumpets to the fore, reaches a shrill crescendo, the camera zooms in to a close-up of Nazerman’s face, which appears to be contorted in pain. However, Nazerman doesn’t scream or utter a sound as he pushes the palm of his hand down on to the spike. It’s as if Nazerman is struggling to suppress both his internal and his external pain.

This agonizing, self-inflicted action by Nazerman of physically impaling the palm of his hand down on to the pawn ticket spike has also been interpreted in a variety of ways. For example, does this extreme action by Nazerman symbolize a belated feeling of guilt; a realization that Oritz has died instead of him? (Maron, 68). Moreover, does this action by Nazerman constitute a form of penance for his behaviour towards Ortiz, which has ultimately resulted in the tragic death of his young assistant? (Brown, Adam and Christmas, Danielle, p.14)

This horrifying scene has also been interpreted on a more fundamental level. Confronted with the realization that Ortiz is dead, and unable to express his emotions externally due to his ongoing trauma, is this act of physical self-harm simply a test that Nazerman gives himself to see whether or not he has any human feeling left? (Gonshak, 126).

Another interpretation of Nazerman’s extreme self-inflicted physical act in this scene has also been linked to a central theme in The Pawnbroker: survivor guilt. As a traumatized Holocaust survivor, Nazerman carries the memory of his murdered family within him, in particular, the responsibility he feels for the death of his son (Insdorf, 31). Therefore, does this extreme act of self-mutilation symbolize that Nazerman’s survivor guilt also extends to the responsibility he now feels for the death of Ortiz from a bullet that was intended for him?

Intriguingly, Nazerman’s horrendous act of impaling his hand on the sharp protruding spike of the shop’s receipt holder and drawing blood has also been interpreted, in relation to religious themes. For example, a Christian analogy has made between the tragic death of Jesus Ortiz (note the significance of his first name) and Nazerman drawing blood by impaling the palm of his hand on the spike of the receipt holder. This interpretation posits that Ortiz sacrifices himself to prevent one of his cronies from killing Nazerman. With his death, Oritz becomes a Christ-like figure and Nazerman his apostle (Zierler, 54). Most importantly, it is only through Ortiz’s act of Christian martyrdom that Nazerman’s redemption is possible. Moreover, Furthermore, Nazerman’s act of impaling his hand on the receipt holder can be viewed as an act of crucifixion (Zierler, 54): a need to feel physical pain after being numb for so long, which stems from a belated realization that his behaviour towards Ortiz has ultimately resulted in the death of his young assistant. It is a devastating tragedy, with Nazerman’s redemption only being possible through the ultimate sacrifice made by Ortiz.

It is also worth noting that issues relating to Christian symbolism – sacrifice and redemption – are much more clear-cut in Edward Wallant’s novel. At the conclusion of the novel, there is a clearly articulated sense of Christian redemptive closure for Nazerman. Furthermore, the novel emphasizes that it is through the tragic death of Ortiz, that Nazerman is now finally able to grieve, as well as maybe even express love for other human beings again (T. Cole, 134).

In the final scene of The Pawnbroker, Nazerman staggers back outside the shop, starring at the blooded palm of his hand as he stumbles through the crowd that has gathered on the street. There are a couple of brief close-ups of Nazerman’s grizzled face as Quincy Jones’ soundtrack swells with a full orchestral accompaniment. The camera then begins to pull back and ascend to an overhead crane shot, with Nazerman becoming more miniscule within the enveloping crowd. As the end credits begin to roll, Nazerman can still be seen as he turns the corner and leans against a shop window with his head in his hands. He then continues to stumble aimlessly along the rain-soaked street.

For this writer, part of the greatness of The Pawnbroker is that the ending of the film remains open-ended. From this perspective, it can be argued that the ending of film is an authentic representation of the psychological complexity of the trauma being experienced by a Holocaust survivor. There is no easy way for Sol Nazerman to reconcile his past trauma, which stems from horrific memories of the Holocaust. Moreover, this past trauma now appears to be compounded by the extent to which Nazerman feels responsible for the tragic death of Jesus Ortiz.

The Pawnbroker ends with a series of question marks. What will happen to Sol Nazerman? What will Nazerman’s ultimate fate be? Has Nazerman been totally destroyed psychologically by his Holocaust experiences and now the tragic death of Jesus Ortiz? What about Nazerman’s feelings of survivor guilt? Does Nazerman blame himself for the death of Ortiz as he did for the death of his son? Or, will the tragic death of Ortiz be the lightning rod that finally galvanizes Nazerman to re-assess his entire existence and begin to reconcile his past traumatic Holocaust experiences with his present existence, so that he can finally move forward with his life? The conclusion to The Pawnbroker provides no definitive answers to these complex questions. The viewer is therefore left to ponder the ultimate fate of Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman.


The Pawnbroker is a landmark Holocaust film. It was the first American feature film to focus on the psychological complexity of the trauma being experienced by a Holocaust survivor from their perspective. In addition, The Pawnbroker also pioneered the innovative use of editing techniques to depict Sol Nazerman’s ongoing traumatic flashbacks: his horrific memories of the Holocaust; capture by the Nazis; the deportation of him and his family to Auschwitz; the death of his son en route to Auschwitz; the death of his wife and young daughter in Auschwitz; his own incarceration and survival in Auschwitz. As Nazerman finds it increasingly hard to repress these recurring and unrelenting memories of the Holocaust, the traumatic flashbacks from the past progressively intrude into his life in the present as a Harlem pawnbroker. The unforgettable portrayal of Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman in The Pawnbroker will continue to influence and inspire directors, as well as fascinate and enthrall viewers well into the future.


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The Representation of Trauma and Memory in The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 1965)

Peter Wilshire is a life-long film enthusiast. He has a Master of Arts by Research in Cinema Studies from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. He currently teaches Screen Practices at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He has also taught Cinema Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. In addition, he has contributed articles for Film International, the Australian quarterly film journals Metro and Screen Education, as well as the online film journal Senses of Cinema.

Volume 23 Issue 9-10 / October 2019 Essays   annette insdorf   holocaust   rod steiger   sidney lumet