Human evil, what a phrase. The Holocaust is the prime example of evil, of just how far we humans can go, and will go, to destroy each other. But what happens to the ones left from the battle, the ones who stared at human evil daily?
“The Pawnbroker,” directed by Sidney Lumet, stars Rod Steiger as a Holocaust survivor, Sol Nazerman, who runs a pawn shop in Harlem. Day in and day out, he gives pittances for the treasures of others, is surly with his assistant/student Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez) and has empty sex with the widow, Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), of a friend simply to pass the time.
In short, he’s a cold and bitter man who shut himself down to survive the horrors of a concentration camp and never woke up. Twenty-five years later, he’s still trapped behind those bars with no hope of ever getting out. The only thing that has changed in his life is his ever-increasing rage at having survived in the first place, that he alone among his loved ones was cursed with life.
And despite the best efforts of those around him, from friendly customers, Ortiz, Tessie, or a neighborhood woman, Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who takes a liking to him, he refuses to help himself. Here is a stunning portrait of the extremes of survivor’s guilt; he won’t be saved because he doesn’t deserve the life his family didn’t get.
In a word, wow. Steiger pulls no punches in his performance of a once-good man rotted through. And for the most part, “The Pawnbroker” matches his performance; Nazerman has been under siege since the Nazis first kidnapped him, and Lumet and his editor, Ralph Rosenblum, deftly show how pervasive horrifying memories can be on a troubled mind.
While “The Pawnbroker” works cinematic magic as a character study, it is less successful in the present tense of the story. Granted, Nazerman is not a nice guy and is a total bastard to everyone around him, but in the last half hour or so, the film is way too hard on the guy. He makes a crucial mistake in word choice, and we know that while the subsequent actions aren’t his fault, he’ll blame himself. The problem I had with wrap-up is that the film seems to blame him too, and I had too much pity to want to see Nazerman suffer anymore. And in that lies the power of “The Pawnbroker,” making me feel sympathy for a devil, a product and purveyor of human evil. Bravo.
“The Pawnbroker” (1964)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Morton S. Fine
Starring: Rod Steiger (Sol Nazerman)
Jaime Sanchez (Jesus Ortiz)
Geraldine Fitzgerald (Marilyn Birchfield)