Sidney Lumet's preoccupation with ethnic identities within New York receives its most poignant treatment in The Pawnbroker (1965). In 12 Angry Men he approached the topic as an outside observer, examining the issue from the perspective of the anonymous majority culture as the jurors unmask and confront bias in their own white male peer group. He shows us the representative of a minority, the defendant, only in passing, and thus turns our attention away from the perspective of the one whose minority status might have contributed to his execution after a perfunctory trial conducted exclusively by members of the majority. Other than in a few transparent code words, ethnicity never rises openly in the discussion, but it hovers over the drama like a great unnoticed cloud.
By contrast, in The Pawnbroker Lumet moves the issues of ethnic identity to the center of the screen. Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), the eponymous hero, emerged from the Holocaust a man broken in spirit. His present life draws its meaning precisely from the fact that he is Jewish. In Europe, although he was a productive citizen, he became a victim as a member of a group. In Spanish Harlem, the neighborhood where he conducts business, he once again plays the role of outsider because of his Jewish background.
Adapted from the novel by Edward Lewis Wallant by screenwriters David Friedkin and Morton Fine, with the collaboration of Sidney Lumet, the film examines the psychological and spiritual scars that deface the soul of Sol Nazerman like so much urban grafitti.15 Lumet's parents made their way to New York long before the horrors of Nazism, but Sidney Lumet's treatment of a displaced survivor, although not based on personal experience, reflects extraordinary compassion for his hero. In painful, halting steps, Lumet leads us back through Nazerman's history. Wife and children, parents, profession, and home, everything that he loved, was taken from him, and he could do nothing to protect himself from systematic annihilation. History drained the life out of his soul, while his body continues to function with slightly more animation than an automaton. Some huge, unseen weight presses down on his shoulders. Somewhere he has lost his capacity for pleasure; in the film he never comes close to smiling. Mendel (Baruch Lumet, Sidney Lumet's father), the dying father of his mistress, tells him bluntly: "I
came out alive; you came out dead." Like most Lumet heroes, Sol Nazerman is not a likable man, yet as one discovers the cruelty he has endured, it is impossible not to forgive him for his cruelty to everyone around him.
The film takes a while to get to the City. The opening sequence, which starts before the titles, provides an idyllic recollection of life in the old country, where Sol Nazerman is a professor of philosophy. He and his beautiful wife have taken the family on a picnic in the country. The memories of family life gain in loveliness as they recede in time. When the scene shifts to present time, reality comes as a genteel shock. The second sequence is set in the backyard of a tract house with the traffic of the Long Island Expressway humming in the background. The strong sunlight casts no shadows, but rather renders the landscape featureless. Nazerman is stretched out on a cheap beach chair, while his teenage niece and nephew engage in typical American banter and his sister-in-law tries to persuade him to finance a trip for her and her husband. Fences hem him in to his own slender patch of property, forming a self-imposed ghetto of confinement. His has become a life of middle-class banality. He has made his life's journey from the idyllic to the mundane by way of the horrific, which will be revealed only gradually as his story unfolds. Conversation comes with difficulty. Nazerman relishes his privacy and does not identify his solitary status as loneliness. His sister wants to take a trip back to Europe, to savor the atmosphere of antiquity. Nazerman describes the atmosphere as "a stink." He has become a cranky old man, but the others in the family seem to accept him for what he is. He pays the bills. He seems satisfied with this arrangement.
After these two introductory sequences, the action moves to Spanish Harlem, the paradigmatic ghetto of urban poverty in the 1960s. The word ghetto holds horrific connotations for a Holocaust survivor. In fact, Lumet has been criticized for universalizing the experience of European Jews making the Holocaust a prime analogate among many other instances of ethnic oppression.16 As an indication of just how dead Nazerman has become, Lumet suggests that he—and in the view of some of Lumet's critics, by extension the Jewish community at large— has learned little from the horrifying experience. Safe in America, he has allowed himself to become again by analogy a "good German," who stands by while Latinos and African Americans live in a state of con tinual institutional oppression. He deliberately blinds himself to an injustice that is a reflection of the Holocaust itself. Even more, by running his pawnshop and turning a modest profit while asking nothing about the syndicate that supplies his income, he profits from his collaboration. Many of Lumet's harsher critics feel that in this film he compromises the unique, specifically Jewish meaning of the Holocaust.
If the criticism holds any truth—and it does, although I and others believe the conclusions of some may be overly harsh—Lumet's vision of the issue might be best understood by recalling his history on the Lower East Side, where ethnic groups over the past century and a half have arrived, struck roots, and moved out. The ongoing tragedy of New York politics and social history is that established immigrant groups in time forget their experience and repeat the same biases against more recent arrivals: Irish, Italian, black, Latino, Asian. Jews, as Lumet points out especially in Daniel (1983), have been at the center of the liberal consensus that sided with other minorities throughout the decades of their own status as "outsiders among other outsiders."17 The tragedy of Sol Nazerman in the eyes of Sidney Lumet lies in his rejection of the Jewish mission of furthering the interests of social justice in the New World, specifically in New York. His abandonment of the City for the quiet, banal, but comfortable surroundings in Levittown on the Island represents a betrayal. Because Nazerman has deadened himself to the needs of others, he allows inhuman cruelty, something like that of the death camps, to continue into the present. The fact that these atrocities continue in other times and places long after Nuremberg make them all the more horrible. The scars Nazerman bears on his soul disfigure him far more obscenely than the number tattooed on his forearm.
In a similar fashion, some interpreters of the film feel that Lumet has compromised Nazerman's Jewish identity by allowing him to become an actor in a Christian redemption parable. If this is the case, one might conclude that Lumet has found Jewish spirituality inadequate to the task of saving Nazerman from his history.18 This observation arises during the last scene, in which Nazerman's assistant, Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez), disrupts the attempted robbery of the pawnshop. When he directs the robber's gun from Nazerman to himself, it goes off and he takes the bullet in his abdomen. He crawls out of the shop, and as he bleeds to death on the sidewalk, Nazerman cradles the head of the dying man on his chest, like an image of the Pieta. He opens his mouth as if to scream, but the only sound that emerges from the sound track is the musical score, not his voice. When Jesus breathes his last, Nazerman returns to the store and impales his hand on the bill spike next to his cash register. In close-up, his face, sweating copiously, shows a combination of disbelief and pain. After his twin ordeals of death of Jesus and self-inflicted pain, Nazerman leaves the store, and in extreme long shot, he disappears into the street, a solitary figure making his way along a busy sidewalk, much like Davis after his ordeal in 12 Angry Men.
As a New Yorker who lived in the mix of traditions, Lumet seems perfectly comfortable adapting elements of Christian imagery into his Jewish story. A close look at the text suggests that religious critics, both Jewish and Christian, may be fusing several visual fragments into a coherent parable of redemption where Lumet has striven to preserve a troubling, even terrifying ambiguity. Jesus Ortiz, because of his name, clearly suggests a redeemer figure, and his grabbing at the gun during the robbery could conceivably have saved Nazerman's life. But other circumstances must be considered. Jesus has made a career of street crime and has joined Nazerman in the hope of getting rich honestly but quickly. When rewards come more slowly than he expected, he conspired in the robbery and hoped to earn his share of the take. He panicked when he saw Nazerman's resistance, but the robbers were more intent on coercing him to open the safe than killing him. If they killed him, they would have had no chance to get the money. The shooting appears more an accident than an act of heroism.
Furthermore, for the purposes of a coherent parable, Nazerman's actual "redemption" is not quite as obvious as some seem to propose. While Nazerman holds Jesus, who has just died, he opens his mouth as though to scream, but the soundtrack provides only discordant brass. At that point, he may still be incapable of feeling outrage or grief. The disjuncture between sound and image leaves the resolution in doubt. As happens so often in nightmares, he may try to scream, but no sound comes out. Similarly, when he impales his hand (suggesting Christ's pierced hands) he makes no sound. The pierced hand moves the Christ imagery and thus identification from Jesus—who in the Christian reading has given his life to save another—to Nazerman himself, the "saved" who voluntarily assumes the wounds of Jesus (Ortiz/Christ) into his own body, like a compliant mystic taking upon himself the stigmata. He coldly grimaces under the self-inflicted wound, but his moves are impassive, zombielike. It is still not clear that he has recovered normal human feeling through his ordeals, or whether he is still torn between the terrible pain he experiences and the superhuman effort to repress it. Finally, when he walks out onto the street while the camera watches in high-angle long shot from a distance, nothing indicates that he has reentered the flow of human life with human feelings. He is as alone in his numbness after the events in his shop as he is in his recollections of the Nazi horrors. He has finally left the self-imposed imprisonment of his shop, but to what end? He left Europe and came to America with his burden of suffering scarcely lightened. He may even be, as some have suggested, the Wandering Jew of medieval legend, doomed to roam earth forever in search of a home because of his complicity in the death of Christ.19 Each day, each act of mindless violence compounds his pain, and his only response is a continuing anesthesia of the soul.
Although Lumet shuffles elements of Christian and Jewish stories into his own syncretistic exploration of Nazerman's inner life, he has created a character that is far from being a mythic hero. Sol Nazerman embodies to a grotesque level the kind of brutal disregard for others that New Yorkers hate about themselves and that provides outsiders with material for cartoon images of crude City dwellers. To survive one has to be tough, perhaps even at the risk of common decency. When Tess (Marketa Kimbrell), his mistress, calls to tell him her father has just died, Nazerman tells her to go bury him and not bother him with her grief. In New York, relentless human misery, screaming out as it does in the midst of the trappings of incomparable wealth and beauty, can be oppressive, overwhelming. Visitors can be visibly shaken at the sight of deranged homeless people wrapped in newspapers and sleeping on ventilation grates outside luxurious boutiques and galleries. They are even more shaken by the ladies in mink and the gentlemen in English flannel who walk around them, pretending not to see—or worse, actually not seeing. It is the only way to survive and function in the City.
Lumet's Nazerman has raised that callous survival strategy to a way of life and finally to a pathology. He builds walls around himself. At home, he separates himself from neighbors with decorative fences. In his car, closed windows protect him from traffic and from the city streets. A curtained partition keeps him from the dying Mendel, the one man who speaks the truth to him. The pawnshop on Park Avenue and One Hundred Sixteenth Street bristles with security fences to protect him from the street. And inside the fortress, a network of steel gates isolates him from the human misery that enters his shop hoping for a few dollars to get through the day: a black woman with candlesticks, possibly stolen; young Latino men with a power mower, certainly stolen; a confused black man, a would-be intellectual longing for conversation with "the professor"; a frantic white drug addict trying to pawn a useless radio; a sad young white man trying to get something, anything, for a high-school oratory trophy; and most horrifying of all, a young, emaciated, pregnant blonde woman, with deep rings under her eyes, offering a worthless engagement ring that her boyfriend said was a real diamond. Nazerman cannot allow any of these stories to touch him. If he did, he would go mad. He hands out a few dollars and pierces the receipts mechanically on the spike next to his cash register.
Nazerman's strategy of isolation serves a purpose, and abandoning it brings grave consequences. Twice, Nazerman faces women without the protective gates. Mabel (Thelma Oliver), a young black prostitute who longs for marriage to Jesus, tries to pawn a necklace. She thinks that the few dollars she raises will help turn her own life around and keep Jesus from reverting to a life of petty crime. Nazerman sits outside his cage, and Mabel offers her body to induce him to increase his offer. As he faces her exposed chest, his mind flashes back to the sight of his lovely wife, similarly naked, forced to serve in a prison camp brothel for Nazi officers. Revisiting memories of her degradation and his power-lessness to help her press hot needles into his soul.
Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald) also enters his space. She first approaches him as an eager, well-intentioned social worker trying to raise money for neighborhood youth programs. Safe within his cage, he donates a few dollars, apparently to get rid of her. Not deterred, she invites him to share lunch on a park bench. He meets her outside his shop but rejects her food and any offer of kindness. Finally, after a series of terrifying self-discoveries, he wanders through the City at night, from his Harlem shop, downtown, across the West Side, and over to Lincoln Center. He finds Marilyn's apartment in that huge sterile block of buildings between Columbus Avenue and the Hudson River. Sitting in her airy living room, with a tiny balcony overlooking the West Side rail yards, the then-functioning elevated West Side Highway, and the docks of the riverfront, he tells her about his experiences during the war. Everything he loved was taken away, he recalls, and he could do nothing.
Their conversation has taken place outside Nazerman's shelter of gates and bars, but the barriers remain. She reaches out to invite his touch, but he leaves her hand suspended in midair. He has articulated his pain to her, but he is not able to accept her support. Yet their exchange has loosed another chain of memories. As he rides the "A" train back uptown, in his reverie, the car becomes transformed into the freight car that carried him and his family to the death camps. He recalls fighting off sleep in a standing position, held upright only by the press of the other prisoners around him. To his terror, his son slides off his shoulders and onto the floor of the car, where he will be surely trampled or suffocated. Because of the crowd, Nazerman can do no more to help him than he could to rescue his wife.
A third encounter outside the gated shop takes place in between the other two meetings. Nazerman has complacently remained on the payroll of Rodriguez (Brock Peters), the neighborhood strongman. His shop serves as a front for laundering money from Rodriguez's various criminal operations. After his exchange with Mabel, he admits to himself what he probably knew for some time: that one area of Rodriguez's activity involves a chain of brothels, as well as drugs and extortion. After his encounter with Mabel and his recollection of his wife's forced degradation, he realizes the extent of his own complicity in human traffic. He meets with Rodriguez in his spacious, white-appointed duplex, and asks to be let out. The gangster confirms his suspicions about prostitution and lambastes him for his hypocrisy for suddenly discovering moral scruples after many years of criminal involvement. Like it or not, Rodriguez concludes, Nazerman is complicit in evil and will continue the present arrangement. Devastated by Rodriguez's articulation of his guilt, he leaves the apartment and begins the journey through the City that will eventually lead him to Marilyn Birchfield's apartment.
Why does he end this stage of his journey in Marilyn's apartment, after he has insulted her in his shop and berated her for offering to share her lunch with him during their meeting on the park bench? As in the final scene, Lumet drapes Nazerman's emotional state in ambiguity. Rodriguez's outburst has stung him to the core. Perhaps he goes to Marilyn to gain assurance that he could have done nothing in the past, and by extension can do nothing to better his world in the present. Another explanation is possible. Perhaps his journey is a cry for help, even though when Marilyn tries to respond by offering simple human contact, he is not yet able to accept it. He needs a final trip through the underworld (on the subway) and a confrontation with Jesus's death before he can rediscover his humanity—if he does.
These ambiguous, climactic scenes explain the negative reactions of several Jewish critics. Lumet leaves the film with two possibly objectionable interpretations. Nazerman's identification with a form of oppression little better than the Nazis make him a collaborator in human evil. The comparison, some would say, devalues the Holocaust as a specifically and uniquely Jewish event, and allowing Nazerman to be portrayed as complicit in such evil offends Jewish sensibilities. Second, his inability to respond to Marilyn's attempt to touch him demonstrates the futility of all human efforts to rescue him. It seems, according to this reading, that Nazerman will need a Christlike "redeemer" like Jesus so that he can be rescued from his spiritual death.
Despite his easy shuffling of Jewish and Christian elements in his telling of the story, Lumet offers a particularly keen appreciation of Nazerman's sense of alienation in his adopted homeland. Through Nazerman's interactions with Jesus, Lumet provides an insight into the counterbias that can insinuate itself into the thinking of minorities or self-perceived outsiders in a pluralistic city like New York. In Sol Nazerman, Lumet provides an insight into the thinking of the stereotyped, which leads them to stereotype those they believe are stereotyping them. This reverse bias helps explain the cultural distances that remain even in constricted physical spaces. In one revealing scene, Jesus notices the prison camp number tattooed on Nazerman's forearm. He asks if it represents membership in some club. Clearly, the younger man has not the slightest awareness of the death camps. Nazerman merely grunts at the young man's ignorance. He cannot waste his time explaining the mark to one so benighted.
Jesus does, however, think he understands Jews. Like many New Yorkers of the era, he has grown up in a neighborhood where Jews own many of the small businesses. He deals with them every day, giving them his hard-won money, dollar by dollar. "These people," he reasons, must have a secret for success. As one who has survived on odd jobs and petty crime, he concludes that if he wants to get rich, he should take Sol Nazerman as his mentor. Perceiving the stereotype Jesus has imposed on him, Nazerman lashes back at Jesus's indirect anti-Semitism with a parody of the Shylock image. He tells him he believes in nothing: not
God, not art, not science. He believes only in money: "Money is the whole thing." After teaching him how to assay gold, he describes the fabled business acumen others have created for a people not allowed to own land and who must therefore survive by trade. Seething with bitterness, he concludes: "Suddenly, you make a grand discovery: you have a mercantile heritage. You are a merchant—you're known as a usurer, a man with secret resources, a witch, a pawnbroker, a sheenie, a mockie, and a kike!" 20 This is, after all, merely the sentiment Nazerman feels that Jesus believes about him. Why not say it out loud, because it's what everyone thinks about Jews anyway? His outburst betrays the stereotyped's stereotype of the stereotyper, a common source of friction in interethnic tensions in crowded, pluralistic cities like New York. It may be, as a matter of speculation, that Lumet placed weight on the dialogue because of own his experience in cramped, multicultural spaces of the Lower East Side, as though Nazerman were articulating the prejudice Lumet perceived in many of his friends and neighbors. However it may be explained, it is certainly one of the unforgettable moments in the film.
Nazerman's struggle echoes the double conflict that characterizes many of Lumet's films. He tries to forge his own identity by distancing himself from his heritage and his family, and from his mistress and her family. He finds no solace in the companionship of fellow survivors of the horror. At the same time, his Jewish community struggles to maintain its existence in America, where the danger comes from subtle bias, as it had in Europe, where it eventually led to annihilation. In his later films, Lumet will continue to explore complex urban relationships between individuals and groups, and between groups and the larger society. He will never again focus so sharply on Jewish identities, but race and nationality will continue to color and complicate the lives of his characters wherever they are in New York.
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