Producer Kermit Bloomgarden, who had purchased the rights to the Diary, contacted an American playwright, Lillian Hellman, and asked her to suggest a playwright. She proposed Albert and Frances (Goodrich) Hackett, a husband-wife writing team (both of them non Jewish), who worked in Hollywood, and they were hired. During their research and writing process both they and Otto Frank were “attacked” by Meyer Levin, an American novelist and one of the first journalists, who reported about Anne Frank’s diary and recognized her literary talent. After Otto Frank had rejected his attempts to dramatize the diary, Meyer Levin became obsessed with the play produced by Albert and Frances Hackett and accused them of destroying Anne’s message by universalizing its Jewish aspects (Doneson 1987: 68). His major complaint was that the play not only completely ignored the Jewish content of Anne’s book (Doneson 1987: 69) but also intentionally changed Anne’s words in order to fit them to the universal needs of his time.
The universal concept of the play was supposed to help the American audience identify with the plight of people in hiding and this tendency was also part of the spirit of the 1950s in America. According to Doneson the universalizing mood of the play does not betray Anne’s message but rather distorts understanding of the Nazi politics and the Final Solution (Doneson 1987: 70). A very concrete example of the universalizing tendency and transformation of the diary in the play is the central scene of the Hanukkah celebration, where the Hanukkah prayers and the Hanukkah song are sung in English instead of Hebrew. The Hacketts explained their reasons to Otto Frank as follows: “It would set the characters in the play apart from the people watching them…for the majority of our audience is not Jewish. And the thing that we have striven for, toiled for, fought for throughout the whole play is to make the audience understand and identify themselves…to make them one with them…”(Doneson 1987: 70). According to Doneson the Hacketts should have been historical honest and should not have distorted the basic fact why Anne actually had to go to hiding – because she was Jewish (Doneson 1987: 71).
Otto Frank supported the Hacketts’ universalizing efforts. He himself (together with Mrs. Roosevelt) urged the playwrights to reach the masses by stressing the coming of age aspects of the diary (a generation conflict, Anne’s love affair) and the universal message against war and discrimination at the cost of Anne’s Jewish identity and the Jewish aspects of the diary. According to him reducing or focusing mainly on the Jewishness of the story would reduce the number of audience.
The Hacketts realized that they were writing for the American audience, most of which had no direct experience with the Holocaust and the whole context of the story was still foreign for them. The play opened on Broadway in October 1955 and was a great success in America followed by a Pulitzer Prize in 1956. It was also being performed all over Europe with its Berlin premiere in 1956. Kenneth Tynan, who attended the 1956 Berlin premiere, described it in his review as “the most drastic emotional experience the theater has ever given me. It had little to do with art, as the play is not a great one, yet in its effect, in Berlin, at that moment of history, transcended anything that art has learned yet to achieve. It invaded the privacy of the whole audience.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_diary_of_anne_frank_%28film%29#From_stage_to_screen) European audiences were confronted with their wartime reality. There were several critical reviews pointing out the lack of resemblance between the Anne form the diary and the Anne in the play. There also was a private battle between Mr. Dussel’s wife and the Hacketts because of his unfaithful portrayal in the play. But generally the audiences were thrilled.
After the success of the play, negotiations for the rights to the film began. Twentieth-Century Fox (the producers of The House of Rothschild and Gentleman’s Agreement) secured the rights in 1956. Meyer Levin hoped for being chosen to write the screenplay but Otto Frank wanted the Hacketts to do the film. Meyer Levin then put Otto Frank and Kermit Bloomgarden on trial charging the Hacketts with plagiarizing his play and destroying the diary’s ideology (Doneson 1987: 72). The Hacketts’ script was sent to the Jewish Film Advisory Committee for approval. Both the Committee and the studio favored the film with universal appeal, the former because of political reasons the latter because of profit needs; the president of the studio feared that the Jewish picture might not have turned into a commercial success. So the sections with explicit talking about Jewish persecutions were omitted in the film and the optimistic ending was added.
After test audiences recoiled, director George Stevens deleted his final scene, in which Anne is seen in a concentration camp uniform, and replaced the image with a more upbeat line, taken from the play: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” The motivation behind the decision concerning the final ending of the film was influenced by sales strategy. But the happy ending can also be seen as a logical continuation of the overall optimistic tone of the film and as an element of a truly American phenomenon (Doneson 1987: 76), which corresponded to the American optimistic atmosphere of the fifties.
Doneson claims that there was a difference in American and European response to the film and especially to its ending. The European audience, familiar with the Holocaust reality through their direct experience of the war, would have had little difficulty in understanding what was going on in the film without universalizing adjustments of the story. Doneson asserts that for the European viewer, the hopeful conclusion of the film might have lessened his/her shame and guilt feelings (Doneson 1987: 76). Anne’s optimism and faith in the mankind’s goodness removes the guilt from the people, who knew what was going on during the war but did not act (Doneson 1987: 77). Doneson calls Anne “the saintlike figure”, who bears the suffering for the viewer and leaves the audience with relief (Doneson 1987: 77). Doneson perceives the function of the happy ending in reestablishment of the credibility of Christianity and in the effort to forgive a lapse of Christian goodness (Doneson 1987: 79).
Bruno Bettelheim, an American psychotherapist, interprets the universalistic aspect of the Diary, its optimistic tone and its upbeat ending as a tendency to deny and negate the reality of the concentration camps (Doneson 1987: 77). According to him the fact that the film depicts the Franks going to hiding trying to live a “normal life”, supports the established image of the Jews as a people who by not resisting contributed to their own destruction (Doneson 1987: 77). The victim is thus found guilty. In one of the dramatic scenes of the film Mr. Frank says: “They don’t need to destroy us. We are destroying ourselves.”
Bettelheim’s theory of Jewish denial and passivity during the war helped to establish the image of the sheep like Jew, an image that has persisted until today in some Holocaust movies (with the exception of the Israeli cinema and movies dealing with Israeli Jews, who represent a new image of the Jew as a heroic fighter unlike the image of the feeble Diaspora Jew – Doneson asserts that the warrior image of Israeli Jew contributed to the widely spread blame of the European Jews for their passivity during the war) (Doneson 1987: 79).
According to Doneson the issue of the Jewish supposed passivity during the war is a theological topic rather than a psychological one (Doneson 1987: 77). Doneson claims that it is the Jewish dependency on the gentile/Christian world makes the Jew a passive and a weak individual: “Essentially the Jew is at the mercy of the Christian and Christian civilization” (Doneson 1987: 77). From a theological perspective the Nazi horrors can be seen as the failure of Christianity (Doneson 1987: 77). The Franks in hiding rely and are dependent on the good will of their Dutch Christian protectors but they also feel fear and distrust toward the Christians because they might turn them in. This ambiguous relationship of gratitude and fear between the Jew in inferior position and his/her superior Christian protector/gentile rescuer becomes a typical schema for later Holocaust films (Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993)).
The film The Diary of Anne Frank puts a great emphasis on the danger that the Franks’ protectors have to face while helping to hide them; their possibly horrible fate is equalized with that one of the Jewish victims. The Franks feel guilt of making use of their helpers, who function as their main connecting element with the outside world. At one point of the movie Anne compares the whole hiding group as “ulcers” of one of their protectors, Kraler, who had to be hospitalized. The character of “a vegetable man”, who delivers the Franks vegetables, and who is arrested and deported to the concentration camp because of helping Jews in hiding, serves as a concrete example of how Miep and Kraler, Franks’ Dutch friends, might end up. They are portrayed as humble, generous and unselfish people, who find their help as something natural. They do not perceive themselves as heroic; they say they just do not like going with “masses”.
Anne Frank’s character in the film is a personification of the Americanization process in the postwar American cinema. Anne’s lasting transformation into a universal symbol of the Holocaust and victimhood generally serves as an evidence for the success of this process: “Anne’s diary becomes a symbol of the Holocaust for Americans” (Doneson 1987: 61). In a survey conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan, The Diary of Anne Frank was still named as the predominant source of Holocaust education. Anne Frank was for those asked more easily related to the Holocaust than such names as Adolf Eichmann, the Warsaw Ghetto and Dachau (Hakakzadeh 2004).The book and both the play and the movie turned Anne into the American national hero. “The Diary of Anne Frank evolved from a particularly European work written by a young Jew hiding from the Nazis in Holland to a more Americanized, universal symbol” (Doneson1987: 60).
Anne’s universal nature is expressed in her humane and optimistic view of the world in the middle of the Second World War atrocities. It has often been argued that the process of universalization of Anne’s diary and her character takes its course at the cost of its Jewish particularity and the Holocaust uniqueness (Doneson 1987: 61).
Doneson suggests in her book Holocaust in American Film that this universalistic process was partially a reflection of the American social situation of the fifties, its conformity and striving for erasing all ethnic differences (Doneson 1987: 61). Meyer Levin argues that there was a communist influence that purposefully robbed the Diary of its Jewish specificity (Doneson 1987: 61). The main argument of the critics of the diary’s universalistic artistic representations lies in the assumption that Anne’s Jewishness is suppressed (in order for the American audience to be able to identify themselves with the people in hiding) and replaced by her universal sense for mankind. She becomes a representative of all suffering people no matter what their religion, race or nationality is.
The fact that Anne is a Jew is considered to be clear and obvious from the beginning of the film; Anne begins her story with informing the viewer about Hitler’s rise to power, her family’s forced emigration to Holland and a list of restrictions against Jews:
“My name is Anne Frank. I am thirteen years old. I was born in Germany but since my family is Jewish we emigrated to Holland, when Hitler came to power. Things went well for us until the war came and the German occupation. Then things got very bad for the Jews. You could not do this, you could not do that. We had to wear yellow stars. I had to turn in my bike. I couldn’t go to the Dutch school any more. I couldn’t go the movies or ride in an automobile or even on a street car and million other things.”
Later when a dentist Mr. Dussel joins the two families in hiding, he informs them about worsening situation in Holland and thus interrupts their quasi secure isolation and shakes with their hope and optimism; he openly speaks about Jewish genocide: “You don’t realize what’s going on. Right here in Amsterdam every day hundreds of Jews disappear. They surround a block, they search house by house. Every day children come home from school to find their parents gone. Hundreds are being deported, people that you and I know.” Mr. Dussel expresses his astonishment over the ruling Nazi racial politics; he has always felt to be a Dutch, Jewishness is something supplementary and even non-essential to his identity, something that he is not even aware and knowledgeable of as his ignorant behavior in the Hanukkah scene shows.
The Hanukkah celebration is the one scene in the movie that could be called very Jewish and that serves as an ultimate evidence of universalizing of the diary’s content. As already mentioned when talking about the play, this solely Jewish ritual is adapted to the English language standards: the actors give the Hanukkah prayer instead of in Hebrew in English. This scene may stress the assimilative characteristics of the Jews in hiding. The producers of the film might have wanted the American audience to feel for the people in hiding and in order to do that they tried to dissolve any ethnic differences. Hanukkah becomes something like Christmas. It was argued that by this act the film negates the basis of the historical reality of the Final Solution, where the ethnic differences played life or death role.
Paradoxically the film today tells the audience more about the social atmosphere of the fifties than about the Holocaust. The film puts greater emphasis on Anne’s relationship with a young boy in hiding, Peter van Daan, than on the Holocaust reality and transforms Anne’s diary almost into a young love story between Anne and Peter. The Holocaust represents a background for the story of Anne’s maturing; it concentrates on the hiding period and avoids any direct exposure to the actual fate of the Jews. Both the family life and the domestic milieu it takes place in (even when in hiding) were familiar for American audience. As such it could be considered as an unusual adventurous film for teenagers, family movie or a thriller. The film’s social message lies in its emphasis on family’s solidarity.
The movie works on four levels: it depicts the life outside the annex that Anne observes and perceives through an attic window (a limited frame of the streets and the river with the sounds of children playing and soldiers marching standing for both the ordinary and the dangerous world of the war contrasted with timeless and limitless space of the sky with changing clouds and birds flying invaded from time to time by flashing sky raids and bombing, not letting anybody forget about the reality of the war) and then the life inside the factory (with regular sounds of machines and influx and reflux of workers, whose presence determine the life dynamics of the people in hiding). George Stevens used a special spatial layering of the house, in which the families are hidden, in order to create and stress their claustrophobic living conditions.
There is another level of Anne’s voice over narration (as if read from the Diary), quasi quotations from her diary, which represents the connection between Anne’s mind and the world surrounding her. The viewer thus gets a special insight into the invisible webs of Anne’s thoughts. Her diary is an expression of her inner freedom (exaggerated by the shots of birds flying in the background, symbolizing unattainable physical freedom); she is the one who sets up her mind’s limitations. The fact that the Nazis did not find the diary and did not confiscate it, supports the idea of the immortality of freedom; even though the Nazis murdered Anne they did not destroy her legacy. The movie succumbs and follows the cliché like Hollywood style of a classic drama: there is a gradated tension followed by a final relief.
The film highlights emotional tensions of the people in hiding but it doesn’t dramatize the real Holocaust events; the horrors of the Holocaust reality are used for dramatizing the family life of the Jews in hiding. The film does not explain or teach about the Holocaust facts, it shows one concrete example of the impact the Holocaust had on ordinary people; the public can thus easily identify with the characters. The Holocaust and the war reality is treated and dealt with only indirectly (the radio broadcast, German soldiers marching in the night, air raids, sirens, bombing, Mr. Dussel’s news, Anne’s nightmares) and partially as a dramatic tool in order to create suspense and sense of danger gradated by the intense melodramatic musical score. The movie has been often criticized for its lack or realism and its obvious adjustment to the Hollywood style.
Even though the film mentions Jewish persecution and deportation to the concentration camps, it lacks tragic details of the Jewish genocide and the Final Solution plays only a marginal role in the film. The more the film would focus on the Holocaust and its Jewish issue, the more difficult it would be for the American public to understand and to identify. Their Jewishness is expressed mainly through their fate and even that element is de-Judaized and turned into the frame of universalistic suffering of mankind. The Franks are German Jews, who emigrated to the Netherlands and their Jewishness distinguishes them and their life style and fate from their Dutch neighbors but otherwise they represent assimilated/acculturated members of European Jewry, whose daily life is not controlled by religious rituals and practices and as such it is easier for the American public to feel for them.
Mintz points out that the attractiveness of Anne’s character makes the empathic connection possible (Mintz 2001: 17). Although she has extraordinary writing and observation skills and for her age a very mature insight into human relationships and ambitious plans for future, she is still a teenage girl dealing with her adolescent troubles and inner turmoil and in this she is like any other girl just living under life threatening circumstances. The identification and the commercial success of the film seemed to be more important at the time of its release than direct representation of the actual wartime events. The story of the film is preconditioned by its historical context but lives separately from it; that is why it was possible to give the film a happy ending (Hakakzadeh 2004). And it is the optimistic upbeat happy ending that is so crucial for American film tradition and it is also relevant to most Holocaust films.
How important is historical accuracy in the films dealing with historical events and documents? As far as this question is concerned the film The Diary of Anne Frank arouses ambiguous reactions. From the historical point of view the film offers a great testimony of the way the Holocaust was perceived and understood in the United States in the fifties – as something that has to be approached indirectly and carefully through the process of domestication, which means showing the Holocaust horrors through the eyes and fates of ordinary Jewish people not unlike those living in America in the fifties at the cost of distorting or ignoring the factual side of the Holocaust and the historical qualities of Anne’s diary.
The question concerning the importance of historical accuracy becomes very relevant in The Diary of Anne Frank, since the film is based on an authentic material that is itself history (Doneson 1987: 80) and as such viewers might perceive the film as authentic too, no matter what deviations from the original text had been made during its production. Already the title of the film expresses its closeness to the original Diary and therefore it should feel obliged to be true to Diary’s themes and ideas (Doneson 1987: 80). The feeling of authenticity is fostered by Anne’s voice-over narration in the film, which makes the impression that the quotations from the original Diary are cited. Doneson blames the producers of the film with a lack of concern and faithfulness as far as the authenticity of the Diary is concerned (Doneson 1987: 81-83), especially when dealing with passages from Anne’s diary on suffering of Jewish people (already mentioned in the passage on the play), which are changed in the universalistic mode into suffering of all people: “We are not the only people that have had to suffer. There’ve always been people that have had to. Sometimes one race, sometimes another…I think the world may be going through a phase, the way I was going with my mother. It’ll pass, may be not for hundreds of years but someday.”
The authenticity of the film is supported by a documentary footage of a concentration camp in Anne’s nightmares but is compromised by Hollywood conventions of casting and scoring (Insdorf 2003: 7). Hollywood’s technique of dramatic situations with their star casting shown in close-ups conducting lively dialogues accompanied by melodramatic musical score has become a canon for its later film production. Anne Frank is played by Millie Perkins, a young model resembling Audrey Hepburn, one of the most popular female stars of the fifties and Peter Van Daan is played by Richard Beymer, a teen idol, who later appeared in West Side Story (Insdorf 2003: 7). Alfred Newman’s soundtrack plays a very prominent role; the music attracts attention and gradates already intense situations.
Jewish groups praised both the stage and screen adaptations of the diary (Novick 1999: 117). The coordinating body of the leading American Jewish organizations, the National Community Relations Advisory Council, enthusiastically recommended the film for its “portrayal of Jews finding solace and strength in their Jewishness [emphasis added], for its depiction of the selfless courage of Christians [emphasis added] who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis, and for its evocation of horror and revulsion against the Nazi program of Jewish extermination” (Novick 1999: 117).
Critics’ reactions to the play and film then vary greatly from today. While its universalism, hope and optimism were awarded in the 1950s, the same aspects of the play and the film outrage today. Mintz claims that The Diary of Anne Frank managed to do more in spreading Holocaust awareness than any political event: “to create a bridge of empathic connection, even identification, between the fate of European Jewry and ordinary American readers who had no ethnic or religious link to the victims and often no knowledge whatsoever of the event itself” (Mintz 2001: 17). Cynthia Ozick expressed her anger at “de-Judaizing of the Holocaust” by stripping the diary of its Jewish elements and replacing them by universal messages in The New Yorker in 1997: “the universalizing of Anne’s story had gone so far, and its results had been so pernicious, that it might have been better if her diary had been ‘burned, vanished, lost’ ” (Novick 1999: 117).
There was nothing wrong with the universal tone and mood of the play and film in the 1950s; the majority of reviewers complimented the Hacketts on faithfully following Anne’s diary (Novick 1999: 118). The novelist Meyer Levin was one of the few dissenting voices; at first disgusted by the choice of non-Jewish playwrights, then objecting to its universal quality and misrepresenting Anne’s story. He contradicted himself several times, for example when reviewing the Diary in the New York Times Book Review in 1952, the universal aspects of its characters where exactly what he had stressed: “It is so wondrously alive, so near, that one feels overwhelmingly the universalities of human nature. These people might be living next door; their…emotions, their tensions and satisfactions are those of human character and growth anywhere….This wise and wonderful young girl brings back a poignant delight in the infinite human spirit” (Novick 1999: 118). It seems that his complaint was quite isolated at his time and of a rather personal character; Levin could not get over being rejected by Otto Frank both for writing the play and the film script.
In order to examine the true nature of Levin’s charge against the Hacketts referring to their de-Judaizing tendencies both in the play and the film, we would have to systematically and carefully compare the original diary with the play and the film, which was based on the play. When looking at the book, we find out that although Anne’s Jewish identity was what brought her into the hiding condition and her death in a concentration camp; her Jewishness doesn’t play a major role in her writing. As far as her religion is concerned, she believes but is not religious, she celebrates Hanukkah but rather as a time of joy than a religious feast and she seems to be more excited about St. Nicholas Day. However, she seems to have respect for Judaism: Anne is startled by Peter’s abrupt cutting off the yellow star from his coat. For him it is a sign of humiliation; he is a representative of active Jewish resistance. For Anna it is the symbol of her people, symbol of her religion“I don’t think I could burn mine…After all it is the star of David, isn’t it?” no matter how unorthodox and non-Jewish Anne seems in the religious matters: “it doesn’t matter what. Just to believe in something.” As far as her national identity is concerned, she hates to be German and loves to be Dutch, she feels to be rather a Dutch than a Jew. It seems that being Jewish for her means something complementary to being first German and then Dutch. She seems to feel the same way about their Christian protectors.
Novick points out that both the play and the film by trying to make the families in hiding less Jewish make them paradoxically more Jewish than how they were described in Anne’s diary (Novick 1999: 120), which corresponds to the earlier mentioned theory that by trying to negate Jewish stereotypes, they stand out even more. Reviewers of the 1990s criticized the Hacketts of completely omitting the Zionist message expressed in the Diary by Anne’s friend Hello, who secretly attends Zionist meetings, and Anne’s sister Margot, who wishes to become a midwife in Palestine, which Anne looks down at.
Later reviews attacked the Hacketts for fabricating last entries into diary. The film ends with Anne’s last entry when arrested by the green police on 4 August 1944; her real last entry dates back to 1 August 1944, three days before their arrest. Anne talks about her dual character, her good side that she keeps hidden inside and her bad side that always wins and gets to the surface. Anne’s last words in the film aroused a lot of controversy later on: "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart", which is the key sentence for both the play and the film.
Doneson’s analysis of the film’s contemporary level lies in its liberal message - a warning to the American public or a commentary on racial discrimination and also an allusion to the HUAC hearings with its system of informers (Doneson 1987: 83). Doneson sees the film’s contribution in its moral message: “America becomes Europe’s teacher on the moral implications of the Holocaust” (Doneson 1987: 83).
5 Chapter Five
5.1 Sociopolitical and Cinematic Situation
Novick calls the 1960s and the 1970s “the years of transition” (Novick 1999: 126). The change that we are interested in is the change in the Holocaust discourse in the American society of the sixties. After almost two decades of silence the Holocaust started to be finally talked about aloud. What were the stimuli that triggered such a tremendous shift?
The Holocaust rising awareness came as a response to changing political and social conditions in the United States. Novick gives us some possible explanations: the Cold War culture was loosening and the fear of weakening the Atlantic Alliance was not so urgent any more (since the end of the WWII the alliance had been built against the communist block; to mention the Holocaust and thus to criticize Germany was considered as helping communist propaganda), William L. Shirer’s bestseller The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) was published, media started to pay more attention to higher activity of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, the 1960 campaign of the East German regime revealed the Nazi pasts of prominent West German officials (Novick 1999: 127-128).
Novick and other scholars such as Mintz see the greatest catalyst in the Israeli agents’ capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and his following trial in Israel in 1961 (Novick 1999: 128). Novick describes the reaction of the American public to the trial as mixed (Novick 1999: 128): “All expressed pleasure that the criminal had been captured and would be called to account. But a great many were distressed about the manner in which Eichmann had been apprehended, and rejected Israel’s claim to jurisdiction” (Novick 1999: 128-129).
There was a concern among American Jewish leaders about the media portrayal of a Jew as a victim in the trial, which was a continuation of the wartime and postwar reluctance to the images of Jewish victimhood that might spark anti-Semitism and make American public feel that Jews deserve their punishment and are vengeful people. Two main American Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee tried to approach the trial in a universalistic way, which means they promoted the portrayal of the genocide as a consequence and evil of totalitarianism. According to Novick, the victim image of a Jew represented by the trial was counterbalanced by the image of a courageous Jew (Leon Urises’ book Exodus and Otto Preminger’s film with the same title (1960)) promoted by Israel since its foundation (Novick 1999: 132).
Novick sees the main contribution of the trial in presenting the Holocaust as an entity to the American public for the first time (Novick 1999: 133). As a result of the trial the word “Holocaust” (as already mentioned in the second chapter) and its content were introduced to the American public and used in mainstream media as a reference to the Jewish genocide in Europe and as a distinctively Jewish entity.
The Eichmann trial was followed by a German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil published in 1963 (originally written as a series of reports for the New Yorker), the central argument of which caused a lot of critique and uproar among American Jewish circles: “under conditions of totalitarianism, ordinary moral scruples were likely to collapse, that obedience to the dictates of authority could lead quite normal and ordinary people to commit, or collaborate in, atrocious crimes” (Novick 1999: 136). The book generated significant discussion in American intellectual and Jewish circles (Lipstadt 1996: 206). Arendt touches a very sensitive issue of Jewish collaboration with the Nazi regime during the war. Arendt came up with the issues of Jewish guilt and complicity similar to those of a Jewish-American writer Bruno Bettelheim, who analyzed Jewish “ghetto thinking”. According to Novick Arendt’s complex and ambiguous view on the Jewish persecution did not fit into an American Jews’ black-and-white frame of pure evil villains and pure virtuous victims (Novick 1999: 141).
Novick analyzes another very controversial and sensitive Holocaust issue that appeared in the sixties (mainly because of German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter) opened on Broadway in 1964): the silence of Pope Pius XII and his failure to publicly denounce the Holocaust during the war (Novick 1999, 142-143). Most of the main American Jewish organizations opposed the play, because it came to stage at the time, when there was Vatican Council II in Rome over a declaration repudiating anti-Semitism and absolving Jews of culpability in the death of Jesus.
But let us turn our attention back to the trial, since it was a key event in understanding the sudden rise of the Holocaust talk. The public nature of the trial transformed the perception and awareness of the Holocaust and its survivors in American public mind: “It became, in a sense, ‘registered’ in American collective memory as a key event in the modern age and as a watershed in the definition of what humanity is capable of” (Mintz 2001: 11) . The Holocaust was finally recognized by gentile world. Thanks to the trial the Holocaust survivors turned from victims into court witnesses, bearers of privileged knowledge and experience conveyed to public in the form of their testimonies (Mintz 2001: 13).
However, Deborah E. Lipstadt on the other hand argues that according to public opinion polls and interviews conducted after the conclusion of the trial “neither the trial nor the debate over Arendt’s book generated sustained interest in the Holocaust among Americans in general and American Jews in particular. In fact, despite extensive media coverage of the trial, its impact seemed to be limited” (Lipstadt 1996: 206-207).
Lipstadt explains this assumed temporal nature of the Holocaust interest by the absence of an intellectual, political, and emotional atmosphere in America (Lipstadt 1996: 207). She also points out to the fact that for many Americans remembering the Holocaust was still a politically incorrect thing to do; the Soviets not the Germans were still the primary object of concern: “Jews in general and survivors in particular were still subject to severe criticism for demanding that Germany confront its past” (Lipstadt 1996: 207). But also Lipstadt agrees with the fact that the sixties gave the intellectual groundwork for later serious interest in the Holocaust.
During the 1960s and the 1970s the Holocaust also became a powerful symbol used by the Israeli and American authorities in their struggle for a strong Israeli state and gradually the Holocaust became an established standard, a moral paradigm, a metaphor against which other catastrophes were measured and compared to.
The era of the sixties was a period of tremendous social changes: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s assassinations in 1963 and 1968, and landing of the first man on the Moon in 1969. The time of Beatles is also marked by such inventions as Barbie Doll (1959), TV broadcast in color (1962), and the first computer video game (1962). The sixties were characterized by enormous social turbulence, anti-authoritarianism, establishment questioning, youth protest, anti-Vietnam War marches and demonstrations, and permissive sexuality and violence.
In 1960 the Hollywood Walk of Fame was founded. The film industry struggled with serious financial difficulties and because of the high cost of producing and making films in Hollywood, the studio sizes were shrinking and the moviemaking outside the country increased, mostly in Britain. The film industry was invaded by foreign cinema and opened both to the competition of international stars (Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, and Sean Connery) and modern cinematic trends (French New Wave). Film censorship was gradually weakening and films offered more explicit sexual and violent scenes. The Hays Code (adopted in 1930 and enforced in 1934) was considered outdated and unnecessarily restrictive but was not abolished until 1967 only to be replaced by a new rating system one year later, which remained the same without major changes till the present days. Traditional genres, like gangster, thriller, war, horror and western film portrayed more graphic violence and adult content. A new group of independent Hollywood directors shaped the cinematography of the 1960s: Sidney Lumet, Woody Allan, Sydney Pollack, and Arthur Penn.
As already mentioned before the Holocaust in the 1960s and the 1970s became a metaphor for contemporary tragedy and injustice; the films of the 1960s weren’t usually produced with the intention to educate the viewer about the Holocaust, they did not strive for the Holocaust understanding, rather they provided a moral lesson for the present (Doneson 1987: 91), which corresponded to he Civil Rights movement and its newly discovered social moral conscience and responsibility and critique of American society. The critique focused mainly on the issues of inequality, discrimination and oppression. The movement called for an emphatic connection to those who suffered and for an active action through commitment (Mintz 2001: 110).
By cinematic means of comparing and juxtaposing the American social and political situation of the sixties with the realities of the Holocaust genocide and discrimination, the Holocaust becomes part of the American imagery – becomes Americanized.
The era of the sixties was a period of equalizing the status of minorities with the mainstream society; the immigration declined and the rate of natural population increased. According to Alan Spiegel in his article on the Jew in contemporary American film, throughout the 1960s and to some extent in the 1970s, there was in America “a fascination with the personality, manners, anxieties, hungers, ecstasies, and follies of the American Jew” (Doneson 1987: 92). In the 1960s, the Jew was viewed less stereotypically (Novick 1999: 141).
Novick asserts that the late sixties and early seventies brought a renewed sense of danger for American Jews that persisted throughout the eighties and into the nineties (Novick 1999: 172-175). The main American Jewish organization made use of separate anti-Semitic incidents in order to claim that the “golden age” of assimilation and security was over and that a new anti-Semitism appeared” (Novick 1999: 172-173). Feelings of fear and threat were stimulated and fed by the events in Israel (the Six Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973). Novick claims that there was a reciprocal relationship between perceptions of increased anti-Semitism in the United States and the increased attention to the Holocaust (Novick 1999: 176).
The renewed sense of danger correlated with the renewed memory of the Holocaust. The Holocaust provided framework and language for contemporary situation; the usage of the Holocaust imagery contributed to the heightened sense of anti-Semitism. Along with this process there was a shift in perception of the Holocaust in the historical context; immediately in the postwar years the Holocaust was considered as a part of history, history of another continent, it was put behind as a closed chapter. During the sixties and seventies the Pandora box was open again and the Holocaust imagery began to live its own existence independently from time or place. It became an ultimate metaphor and a symbol at first for anti-Semitism, later for the Jews generally (Novick 1999: 178).
The Holocaust became perceived by many as an incomparable and a unique event but still and educatory necessary and efficient lesson for wide public. Novick describes this process as an “inward turn – a shift away from the previously dominant ‘integrationist’ perspective and toward an emphasis on the defense of distinctive Jewish interests” (Novick 1999: 178).
Novick points out that the Holocaust aspect that received most attention throughout the decades was a gentile indifference to the fate of the European Jews put into a parallel with a gentile indifference to Israel’s plight and to the well-being of American Jews (Novick 1999: 179). The Jews were shown as isolated and vulnerable in a hostile and indifferent world. The difference was made between guilty bystanders (indifferent majority) and “Righteous Gentiles” (rescuers and people risking lives for Jews) (Novick 1999: 179-180).
However, Novick argues that paradoxically it wasn’t hostility that threatened the American Jews from the sixties on but rather the absence of hostility: “Integration – winning acceptance on every level and in every area of American society – could hardly any longer be a priority, since it was an accomplished fact…The survival to which Jewish leaders increasingly turned their attention did not mean the physical survival of Jews in a hostile environment. Rather, it was the absence of hostility to Jews that was threatening” (Novick 1999: 184-185). The threat of persecution was replaced by the threat of assimilation (reflected in high rates of intermarriages), sometimes referred to as a “quiet,” “silent,” “bloodless,” or “spiritual” Holocaust (Novick 1999: 185).
Thinning Jewish identity was often explained as a consequence of American young Jewry’s insufficient awareness of the Holocaust (Novick 1999: 186-187). The sixties changed the overall social atmosphere in America; while in the fifties the uniting tendencies prevailed and America was portrayed and perceived as one nation, the sixties brought a disintegration of this “all-American” identity into smaller entities, particular identities of groups (Jews, African Americans, Hispanics, women, gays,), who shared certain type of oppression and discrimination (Novick 1999: 189).
Novick argues that their shared identity was based on their status of victimhood and that is why he calls the social atmosphere of the sixties as the “culture of victimization” (Novick 1999: 189-190). He mentions Vietnam as the first war in American history, in which images of the victims replaced traditional images of heroism (Novick 1999: 190). America entered a period, when the victimhood stopped to be despised and started to be celebrated. The Holocaust fit into this new social situation and represented for the American Jewry a perfect tool for distinguishing their victimhood from the other groups, who centered their identities around their victimhood quality: “The Holocaust became the defining Jewish experience, all Jews had their ‘honorary’ survivorship in common…all were united in an essential victim identity” (Novick 1999: 190-191). The Holocaust in the center of their victim identity seemed to be the only symbol, to which all Jews could feel a strong sense of connection (Novick 1999: 191). Novick claims that the American Jews owe their “success” in the victimhood competition (winning the gold medal in the “Victimization Olympics”) in America to the Holocaust, which constituted an ultimate tragedy that could not be trumped (Novick 1999: 192).
As far as the cinematic situation is concerned, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) is a Holocaust film that opens the decade of the 1960s. Even though the focus of this thesis is on the following film, The Pawnbroker (1964), I would like to at least mention a few facts about this film because of its characteristic atmosphere of the socially aware sixties. The film was directed by Stanley Kramer, known in Hollywood as a master of “message movie”, and this was also true for Judgment at Nuremberg, which was a commercially successful film addressing serious social issues (Mintz 2001: 93). The success of the film was partially assured by the cast full of celebrities (Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Marlene Dietrich). Its premiere and the sentencing of Eichmann happened on the same date, on 14 December 1961.
Judgment at Nuremberg was the first American film that combined fiction and history (liberation of the concentration camps) when dealing with the Holocaust. The film incorporated archival footages of the liberated camps into the movie and Stanley Kramer decided to alternate them with close-up head shots of the main protagonists in order to shock the audience; yet reviews of the film did not usually mention the footage, their focus was on the collective responsibility of the German people; the issue that was discussed right after the end of the war but then because of the Cold War considered to be politically incorrect (Mintz 2001: 86).
The Holocaust in the film is portrayed in a universal way, not as a specific Jewish issue or Jewish genocide. The Jew in the film becomes symbol of a universal victim. The film is based on the actual Nuremberg trials and mirrors their message, which stressed more the crime than the victim and lacked the importance of the specific religion and nationality of the victim. Judgment at Nuremberg works on two levels; it brings the issue of German guilt (for the first time after the WWII) and raises the question about the general principles of justice and responsibility; and in that way also addresses American history and its issues. As Stanley Kramer said: “I am interested in the world and what we in America stand for. This interest is what attracted me to ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ – this concern for what we Americans stand for. I was not so much interested in what the Germans stood for, during the Hitler period or in the post-war years or now.” (Mintz 2001: 102)
It is interesting that there are no major Jewish characters in the film. The film deals with two court cases: sterilization of a member of the Communist Party and racial pollution. The only scene, which includes the Jews, is the archival footage. Although the number of six million Jews killed during the Second World War is mentioned (for the first time in film), nothing is said about the Final Solution referring to the complete extermination of the Jews; the Jewish “casualties” are mentioned among others without any specific special victim status of the Jews as a group.
5.2 The Pawnbroker (1964)
Three years later after Judgment at Nuremberg another Holocaust film that offered a completely new view and perception of the Holocaust survivor was released, The Pawnbroker (1964). The film was based on a 1961 novel by an American Jewish writer Edward Lewis Wallant and appeared at the time of rising Holocaust awareness It is the first American feature film with the Holocaust survivor as the hero. The film was nominated for an Oscar for the Best Actor in a leading role (Rod Steiger). It takes almost a documentary approach and belongs to a group of European, mainly French movies – documentaries (Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955) and Lanzman’s Shoah (1985)) that deal with the Holocaust issue by altering classical realist forms of film narration. The Pawnbroker was one of the first mass-distributed American fiction films, which visualized concentration camps in the form of stage-sets (The Young Lions (1958) with a brief scene at the end, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) with an archival footage of the liberated camps, Operation Eichmann (1961) with one brief scene).
The Pawnbroker was directed by Sidney Lumet (a director with Jewish background) and made by an independent production. Sidney Lumet had already at that time history of an originally TV director and later as a movie director of programs and feature films with social issues (Twelve Angry Men (1957)). Mintz called the film together with Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) “breakthrough films” in their time (Mintz 2001: 108). Both of them concentrate on the evil at home in America by the means of analogy with the Holocaust issue. While Judgment at Nuremberg calls for legal actions and public awareness of collective responsibility, The Pawnbroker asks every individual for his/her own acts of understanding and empathy (Mintz 2001: 108-109). The film reflects the social change of the sixties and corresponds to the awakening social consciousness of that time.
The Pawnbroker was a scandalous movie at its time. The film was accused of being anti-Semitic, offering a stereotypical image of a Jew, who believes in nothing but money, it was criticized for being racist against African Americans, presenting the African Americans in villainous roles, and charged with being pornographic, for featuring exposed breasts for the first time in a modern American commercial film (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059575/). No wonder that there was a three-year distribution delay because of the lack of distributor’s interest and censorship problems. The movie subverted Hollywood conventions in many ways: it presented a stereotype of a greedy merciless Jew and a submissive inferior black man. From the view of an average American viewer of the sixties the film’s variety and mixture of different ethnic characters together with violent and nude scenes was something shockingly new.
The plot of the movie revolves around a concentration camp survivor, Sol Nazerman, an owner of a pawnshop in Harlem, New York. The story takes place in the early 1960s; it has little interest in historical conditions or motifs of the Nazis rather its focus is on the inner life of a Holocaust survivor and the social urban situation in the American ghettos of the sixties, juxtaposing the two eras by the means of flashbacks. Its black and white style (nowadays it is considered to be one of the most common Hollywood tricks for achieving the illusion of historicity and authenticity) contributes to its artistic and documentary value. The Holocaust here is not a legal or moral problem but rather a psychic issue (Levinson 2004: 154). It is an exceptional case of the American “posttraumatic cinema of the Holocaust” (Hirsch 2004: 3), which uses the French New Wave innovative techniques of flashbacks and has a gritty film noir look.
The use of the flashbacks is crucial and typical for the posttraumatic cinema; they represent traumatic memories from the past, which unexpectedly intrude upon the present. The flashbacks make both the main character and the viewer relive and re-experience a traumatic memory. The point of view is fixed and inflexible, unlike “normal” memories that change during the time and so does the point of view. The viewer thus has a glimpse of the inner world of the character that cannot be perceived from the outside and this way the viewer gets to know more than the other characters in the film know.
In order to understand the innovative use of the flashbacks in the film, we should pay attention to the connection between cinematic representations of a traumatic memory and the concept of trauma. When we talk about the concept of trauma and the role of cinema, we have to go back to the word “trauma” itself. Trauma originally referred to a physical phenomenon. In the nineteenth century Sigmund Freud applied the concept to the psychology field, and from there the concept of trauma entered the historical and social discourse. In the psychological sense trauma is an overwhelming experience that cannot be processed by memory in a usual way. Freud distinguished between an exogenous (triggered by an external stimuli) and an endogenous (triggered by an internal process) trauma. A traumatized person or a group of people often suffer from a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), symptoms of which include nightmares, flashbacks, emotional detachment, numbing, dissociation, insomnia, and irritability.
In historical terms the Holocaust may be seen as a trauma, a complete breakdown in history. The posttraumatic cinema tries to represent the Holocaust as a rupture in history by breaking a classical narrative form. The posttraumatic cinema represents a collision between realism and modernism. The beginning of the twentieth century with its huge wave of industrialization, urbanization and other effects of the WWI contributed to the development of modernism in film expressed by disorienting time shifts, hyper subjective points of view, and narrative self-consciousness. As opposed to a classical realistic historical film with its linear chronology, the omniscient point of view, and the impersonal judgment of the past, the posttraumatic cinema breaks the linear chronology; time is experienced as fragmented and uncontrollable and the past is too remote or too immediate (Hirsch 2004: 21-22).
Trauma doesn’t refer to an experience itself but rather to an inability to express the experience, which in the cinematic language means the inability to represent a traumatic event. Trauma is a failure in mastering an experience, failure in information encoding and narration; the information cannot be organized on a linguistic level but stays on an iconic level (results in inability to speak about the traumatic event, which in the film gradates into Nazerman’s silent scream at the end) (Hirsch 2004: 23).
The controversial but still widely accepted fact that the Holocaust issue in film was a taboo for two decades after the end of the Second World War (one of the possible explanations was a collective numbing response to the Holocaust trauma) is often explained as a representational crisis, a cinematic crisis of the Holocaust representation (Hirsch 2004: 15). Joshua Hirsch, the author of Afterimage, talks about a “vicarious trauma” or a film-induced, analogue trauma: viewing a traumatic film, or rather a film with scenes of high traumatic potential can cause symptoms similar to those of the posttraumatic stress disorder (Hirsch 2004: 16). The “vicarious trauma”, which can result in posttraumatic stress, can also be caused by a prolonged meeting with a traumatized person.
The founding father of the posttraumatic cinema, a French director Alain Resnais, who is famous for his documentary film Night and Fog (1955) and his masterpiece Hiroshima mon amour (1959), was reportedly a great influence for Sidney Lumet, especially his use of flashbacks in The Pawnbroker (even though Lumet himself denied the influence of the European films on his work and saw its origins in America, mainly in its TV production (Hirsch 2004: 106)). The use of flashbacks in historical films was nothing new in the 1960s, but the way Lumet experimented with the portrayal of the past by the means of split-second flashbacks was new and radical for the American audience of that time.
The classical technique of cutting back and forth between scenes is not necessarily understood as the time before and after but rather as two simultaneous realities existing in one’s memory. The use of flashbacks in the movies dealing with the Holocaust shows discontinuity of the Holocaust survivors’ lives: “a permanent duality, not exactly a split or a doubling but a parallel existence” (Hirsch 2004: 101-102). Cinema creates this way an analogy to the survivor’s memories and oral history.
The posttraumatic cinema uses intruding fast flashbacks instead of conventional dreamlike ones. It has to work harder to attract audience and to shock; the archival footage of liberated concentration camps by itself lost its effectiveness as a cinematic memory of the camps. The cinema had to undergo a new formal experiment and to create the “afterimage” in order to attract the viewer (Hirsch 2004: 103). The flashbacks become anti-images, which disturb the regular chronological chain of images (Hirsch 2004: 107).
Lumet used a complex system of flashbacks to represent the survivor’s mental processes and his traumatic memories that intrude his life even after 25 years of living in the United States. The flashbacks often express painful feelings and describe traumatic events that Nazerman cannot communicate. They create “visual rhymes”, parallels and analogies to the present line of events: “In this film, one pays price for vision: images are wounds that won’t heal”(Insdorf 2003: 28- 30).
The main hero of the film, Sol Nazerman, is not only a Holocaust survivor but also a witness of the Nazi horrors and it is especially his helpless act of witnessing that causes the posttraumatic symptoms of relived memories. By showing Nazerman’s haunting memories and recreating the trauma the film makes the viewer become a witness too. The film’s editor Ralph Rosenblum calls the flashbacks used in the film “an X-ray vision of the anguish itself” (Levinson2004: 149). The flashbacks represent the process of memory and involuntary remembering; they become “visual codes” (Levinson 2004: 150) of the film’s subconscious level. Fragmentation of the flashbacks and its fast frequency symbolize the forceful act of memories pushing on Nazerman’s consciousness (Levinson 2004: 150).
There are no advance signals announcing the coming of a flashback, not even a musical one (the flashback scenes lack music) except for the only one classical signal: fast flashing frames across the screen and Nazerman’s change of expression, his memory stare: “Not only do the flashbacks disable Sol’s visual mastery over his surroundings, but, even within the Mabel/Ruth flashback, his victimization is presented as a loss of visual mastery.” (Hirsch 2004: 108). It is as if Nazerman lost his eyesight for a while and was completely blinded both by the situation that triggered the traumatic memory and the pain of the memory itself. The breaking of Nazerman’s eyesight is demonstrated by very fast switching from the memory scene to the present scene. The motif of breaking of the eyesight adopted from the book (where the flashbacks correspond to its passages written in italics) is very important for the symbolism of Nazerman’s isolation and victimhood. His inability to put his memory and experience into words separates him from the rest of the world. He is a victim of his own memory.
One learns to expect the flashbacks but it doesn’t diminish its intensity achieved by its brevity and frequent repetition. None of these flashback memories is ever verbally narrated by Sol to another character. The Pawnbroker lacks an investigator’s character like in Sophie’s Choice, who would mediate to the viewer the uniqueness of the survivor’s experience contained in the fragmented images of the flashbacks. There is an unsuccessful substitute for the investigator in the character of the social worker Marilyn Birchfield, but she is rejected by Nazerman, who refuses any sympathy or pity. Nazerman’s negative resistance to his memories makes him averse to any help.
Nazerman does not allow anybody to enter his inner world. He lives at and financially supports his sister-in-law’s family but does not seem to have any emotional attachment to her or other members of the family. He has an affair with another female survivor and a wife of his friend, who died in the concentration camp. But their love making is a matter of routine without love and passion. Both of them are plagued by guilt, which is personified by the widow’s dying father, who they keep in a separate room. He is also a Holocaust survivor, a symbol of the past that has not been healed, and an ever present reminder of their emotionally death long time ago (he calls Nazerman “walking dead”). He reproaches Nazerman for his betrayal both of the dead and himself. Neither Nazerman nor the other woman is able to live in the present. When the old man dies, the burden of the past is still with them.
There is another woman, a social worker Marylin Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who tries to approach Nazerman in a friendly way but is refused (on a visual level the refusal is symbolized by Nazerman’s denial of Birchfield’s reached down hand). Her own suffering from loneliness is not sufficient so that she could find a common ground with Nazerman’s lonely world. Nazerman is unable of empathy (this survivor’s inability is partially resolved at the end of the movie) and laughs at her inner turmoil, elevating by this act his own suffering to a unique level. Levinson points out to the fact that the viewer in comparison with the confused and hurt social worker understands the survivor’s inarticulate pain (Levinson 2004: 152).
The only one, who at the end manages to crack Nazerman’s hard shell that hinders him to relate to other people and prevents him from having any feelings but guilt is Jesus (Jaime Sanchéz), a Puerto Rican Nazerman’s assistant and his quasi student, who brings life and energy into the dead world of Nazerman’s shop. Unlike Nazerman Jesus is young and full of dreams and future plans. He had grown up without his father, Nazerman had lost his son; they could fill the need in them but Nazerman is closed. Nazerman accepts the role of Jesus’ teacher for a while, as if Jesus woke up in him his past, when he was still living happily as a professor. Nazerman accepts to become Jesus’ teacher, because Jesus respects him, but he refuses to be called professor by a slum gangster Rodriguez, who utters the title with irony and without any respect.
There is an interesting polarity between these two characters. Jesus puts all his effort in order to be part of the mainstream American society; Nazerman on the other hand put no effort at all to break his isolation. Jesus wears a shiny big cross on his neck as an expression of his Catholic faith; there is no sign of Nazerman’s religiosity before the concentration camp experience but there is obvious lack of faith in anything after the experience. Nazerman seems to believe in nothing but money, because money will always have its value: “(Nazerman): I do not believe in God, or art, or science, or newspapers, or politics, or philosophy. (Jesus): Then, Mr. Teacher, ain't there nothing you do believe in? (Nazerman): Money.”
However, at the end even money loses its meaning for Nazerman as it had before: he starts to give it out without thinking and became generous against his will. This shift in Nazerman’s perception of his money (after finding out where it really comes from) symbolizes his both his utter resignation and acceptance of his fate. He gives up the only security he has in his life, his business, and expects his belated death. This unconscious sacrifice leads to a renewed sense of feeling; after Jesus’ murder Nazerman finally allows himself to mourn.
While Jesus is portrayed as a symbol of life and future, Nazerman stands for the dead and the past. Nazerman lets his past control his present and thus he also affects Jesus future. Jesus dies at the end of the movie partly because of Nazerman’s holding on his past. Jesus sacrifices his future for Nazerman’s present. Because of Jesus dramatic (may be even melodramatic) and violent death at the end of the movie, Nazerman is able to feel the present again. However, he is still unable to grasp the present by articulating his emotions. Jesus had to die in order for Nazerman to be born again against Nazerman’s will.
The film begins with a dreamlike soundless slow motion scene, where Nazerman, his wife, their children, and grandparents have a picnic in the country. That is the only scene, where we see Nazerman smiling. The idyllic sequence with slow jazzy music suddenly ends and is juxtaposed with a scene from suburban life with Nazerman sitting in the yard of a small housing unit on Long Island together with his sister-in-law’s family.
There is a rapid change in the tone and rhythm of music, which precedes a change of time and environment and signals a break in Nazerman’s life (the scene is completed with the arrival of the Nazis only toward the end of the film). Nazerman is physically there but it is obvious from his lethargic reactions to his surrounding that his mind is somewhere else. It is the 25th anniversary of his wife’s death in a concentration camp, which we find out and understand only indirectly. His sister-in-law suggests a trip to Europe to him, while emphasizing the difference between European and American cultural legacies (“U can smell the difference.” Nazerman: “It is rather like a stink, if I remember.”). She starts to bring back her memories and talks about her sister; unlike Nazerman she has got over her trauma, she is able to speak about it and remember it as her past. Her family seems to be fully integrated in America. Her daughter’s unwillingness to listen to her mother’s stories symbolizes an indifferent attitude of the whole society stressed out during the film by the unconcerned and dehumanized behavior of the city inhabitants.
The orthodox like Judaism of the grandparents from the earlier Eden like scene is replaced by the modern assimilated Jews of the postwar America (Levinson 2004: 149). These are the scenes before and after Nazerman’s concentration camp experience, which will come back in fragmented flashbacks during the progress of the film. The first fast piercing flashback sequence we see is that one of Nazerman’s wife, Ruth, and her voiceless call, which comes back at the end in Nazerman’s mute scream.
The next scene we see Nazerman driving to his pawnshop through the city to a very dilapidated part of the city, a black slum. The picture of the city we get stands for a new modern ghetto of the sixties. Nazerman’s pawnshop with its pattern of bars symbolizes both his current prison and his refugee place. Nazerman is trapped within the frame of his memories and among derelicts, many of which lost their real value but once had been memory artifacts of people, who came to pawn. For Nazerman they are just things with a sticker, things without value unlike his own memories. While he can have a control over them by sorting them out and labeling them, but he cannot do the same thing with his own memories; these have control over him. Nazerman is unable to feel, to mourn for the people he loved and lost and to forgive himself for his unwilling survival.
Nazerman’s role in the confinement of his pawnshop is ambiguously double: he lives there both as a victim and as an oppressor. He is a victim of his past memories that intrude upon his consciousness even into the solitude of his shop. The bars of the store represent his separation and detachment from other people. The pawnshop offers him a false feeling of security but also a feeling of power. Nazerman is the one, who decides about the fate of his customers; who he treats with contemptuous indifference and calls them “scum, rejects, creatures”. He is a victim of Rodriguez’ (Brock Peters) tyrannical rule, the kingpin of the slum (his character is an analogy to the Nazi capo), who uses Nazerman’s shop for cleaning his money earned from brothels and gambling. But he is also an oppressor of his customers, whose often desperate and poor lives are dependent on his good will. Annette Insdorf saw an analogy between Nazerman’s contempt for African Americans and the Nazis’ attitude toward Jews: “Nazerman treats his predominantly black customers with the same disdain that characterized the Nazi’s attitude toward Jews”(Insdorf 2003: 28). However, Nazerman feels indifferent to any customer apart from their ethnic origins. Nazerman calls himself “non discriminatory non sectarian”.
Another flashback sequence that we see occurs during Nazerman’s way home from work. This time it is a memory of a camp triggered by a barking dog and a group of youngsters attacking somebody on the Harlem street. The memory reveals Nazerman’s experience of paralyzing passivity when watching a camp prisoner climbing a fence with a barb wire being attacked by a Nazi prison guard with a German shepherd. The brutality of the concentration camp is juxtaposed with the brutality in Harlem of the sixties, which again corresponds to the heightened social awareness of the sixties. Nazerman’s traumatic memory seems to be more real than the present situation, there is no chronology in his perception of life, he is unable to leave his past behind him and live the present. The past has still not been worked out. Alan Rosen points out that Nazerman’s memory is triggered by an external nonverbal sound (the dog’s barking), which makes a parallel to the German commands without subtitles in the past: “the present and past are connected by that which is inarticulate” and memory becomes not so easily comprehensible (Rosen 2002: 95).
The next flashback is triggered by a fake diamond engagement ring, which is an object of pawn. The flash cut shows a German guard taking rings from hands outstretched on barbed wire. It is the only memory sequence, where Nazerman does not appear and it makes it probably the most impersonal and universal one.
Unlike the one that follows, in which Jesus Ortiz’ black prostitute girlfriend comes to Nazerman and hopes to earn some extra money by offering him a “private session”. The look at the prostitute’s naked body triggers the memory of Nazerman’s wife being force to become a camp prostitute for the Nazis. Nazerman becomes a passive witness of humiliation of his wife, after his inquiry he is forced to look: the verb look is very important in this sequence, it appears both in German and English as if the memory became finally articulate and spoke in the present (Rosen 2002: 97). The verb look also refers to Nazerman’s unwilling repetitive seeing his traumatic memories again and again.
Nazerman attempts once to narrate and speak out his memory, unsuccessfully, when visiting the social worker in her apartment: “There have been memories that I had, 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 had kept myself from hearing… and now they flood my mind.” While Birchfield was able to articulate her memory of loss, to talk about the death of her husband, Nazerman does not allow the memory to become loud words.
In the last flashback sequence triggered by a crowded subway and depicting the family’s deportation the memory becomes articulated through English, while the present remains silent: “the flashback itself brazenly borrows the English of the present to represent the past. The inversion suggests that, with the terrible death of his son – the incident that most profoundly marks the train scene – the past has taken over, supplanted, even erased, the present” (Rosen 2002: 99).
In the final scene of Nazerman’s mute scream the inversion turns back, the soundlessness from the past conquers the present, which represent an analogy to the situation from the past, the loss of a close person.
The only willed flashback (Insdorf 2003: 31) occurs close to the end of the movie and is triggered by a pawned butterfly collection. We return back to the opening idyllic scene interrupted by three Nazi officials, while at the present Nazerman is surprised by three thieves. The cycle is closed. The present oppression experienced in a modern city is juxtaposed with past Nazi horrors.
At the end of the movie Nazerman symbolically re-experiences his Holocaust trauma of being forced to be a passive witness of his wife and children’s death (Levinson 2004: 152). Now he sees his assistant Jesus being killed instead of him in a robbery of his pawnshop. This seemingly useless murder wakes up Nazerman from his “psychic hibernation” (Levinson 2004: 152) but even though he is able to feel again, he is not able to articulate his pain. His silent scream (supposedly based on the faces in Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059575/) becomes an “emblem of the Holocaust survivor” and his “essential isolation” (Insdorf 2003: 31).
In order to give release to his suffering or to still it by physical pain he slams his hand over the spike for holding pawn tickets. This act might be also seen as an act of punishment. Nazerman has Jesus’ blood on his hands, which evokes symbolism of guilt. Thus this scene might be interpreted as Nazerman recognizing his guilt, not only the survivor’s guilt (again unwillingly he becomes a survivor) but guilt of his indifference and noninvolvement in the world, which made him an accomplice in Jesus’ murder. Insdorf points out to the way Nazerman mutilated his hand as if he wanted to dehumanize his body: “Nazerman turns his body into a receipt” (Insdorf 2003: 31).
Many critics found Christian allegory in this final scene. Jesus died in order to save Nazerman: “The Catholic Jesus has sacrificed himself for the Jewish Holocaust survivor Nazerman (the man of Nazareth, or Nazarene, the ancient name for Christ or Christian), and in turn the Jew crucifies himself for all the suffering of humanity”(Bartov 2005: 97). Doneson stresses that the Jew is seen as a spiritually and physically weak figure: “a weak, almost feminine figure, dependent upon the Christian-gentile as symbol of maleness” (Doneson 1987: 112). Judaism in the film is on a symbolical level portrayed as a failure as opposed to Christianity (Doneson 1987: 112). The Jew is offered redemption in the form of his Christianization by depriving him of his Jewishness (Levinson 2004: 152-153).
Levinson sees the redemptive ending in the film’s therapeutic message: Nazerman was forced to relive his trauma that he had tried to repress as if he was forced to “work through” the memory (which refers to Freudian process of remembering, repeating and working through memories). Nazerman’s repression of his memory changed into a new lived experience and all this happens through ethnically distinguished characters: “the Jew represents the repressed victim of past trauma: the African Americans and Puerto Ricans embody a vital, energetic response to oppression in the present. For the Jew to be healed, he must open himself to the life around him, understanding his place among – not in opposition to – the other oppressed minority groups” (Levinson 2004: 153).
Levinson sees the central and final message of the film in its therapeutic suggestion for unblocking empathy abilities both in the Holocaust survivors and the viewer (Levinson 2004: 154), which corresponds to the social consciousness of the sixties. Levinson finds empathy in the middle of the overall feeling from the film. Empathy becomes the only possible connection between us and the survivors.
According to Levinson and his theory on the process of viewer’s identification with maimed body and soul, The Pawnbroker achieved what the movies and documentaries preceding it did not: it managed to arouse empathy and thus identification between the survivor and the viewer. While the earlier movies focused mainly on physical pain and scenes of tortured bodies (by incorporating newsreel footages like in Judgment at Nuremberg) in order to cause a certain moral or political response in the audience, they offered only a little identification possibility because they lacked reflections of the survivors’ state of consciousness. The Pawnbroker enables the viewer this identification and creates thus a new paradigm to the Holocaust by juxtaposing the flashbacks with fragmented Nazerman’s memories of the Holocaust with the present situation that triggered the process of remembering. The viewer can thus see both the external stimuli and the inner state of consciousness (Levinson 2004: 156).
Lumet achieved in his psychological depiction of Nazerman’s inner turmoil a new level of universalization of the Holocaust and its survivors. Even though Nazerman is portrayed as a particular Jewish character and the Holocaust survivor, his psychological traumatic states can correspond with anybody, who gets into a critical life situation. Nazerman stands for a man plagued by his traumatic memories. The Holocaust becomes just one of the possible traumas that might trigger the stress disorder. Levinson explains this universalizing shift by a broadening of public discourse on the Holocaust and also an overall conceptual transformation (Levinson 2004: 157). By using the flashbacks the Holocaust imagery becomes re-coded (Levinson 2004: 157). The viewer has to get used to this new language.
Is Nazerman a portrait of a stereotypical Jew or does he represent a typical Holocaust survivor or is his inability to feel and communicate a symbol of a modern trend in the sixties toward alienation?
Nazerman is portrayed as a man, who despises all humanity and cares only for money (Mintz 2001: 107), in this way Nazerman resembles Shakespeare’s Shylock and by this resemblance the film strengthens one of the most common stereotypes about the Jews. Alan Rosen analysis an interesting symbolism of The Pawnbroker: Nazerman turns his pawnshop (used in cinematography for a long time as a stereotypical symbol for Jewish greediness: D.W.Griffith’s Old Isaacs, The Pawnbroker and The Romance of the Jewess (both 1908), Charlie Chaplin’s The Pawnshop (1914)) into a classroom and this way returns to the time before the Holocaust, when he was an assimilated German professor. Nazerman teaches Jesus (which on a theological level might mean the origins of Christianity in Judaism) his assistant and quasi student first about gold (how to see the real core of things), then about money (which is in reality a lecture on history of Jewish persecution), and about memory (which is represented by a calendar and Nazerman’s wish to freeze the time). Rosen puts these pawnshop lectures into the context of the current issues in the sixties: “urban economics, integrated schools, and the plight of blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York City” (Rosen 2004: 77).
The Pawnbroker is a representative film of the cinema of social conscience where the Holocaust serves as a frame for urban suffering. Nazerman’s extreme detachment and non-involvement (providing him with a false feeling of safety) are considered to be both symptoms of an earlier unspeakable suffering and oppression and also on a more symbolical level as an allegory for the major social wave of the Sixties: “Within the ethos of social conscience, detachment is the ultimate sin; it is the antithesis of sensitivity and makes engagement and commitment impossible”(Mintz 2001: 114). The sacrifice of his young assistant at the end of the movie breaks Nazerman’s shell and makes him vulnerable to feelings again. Nazerman then stands for the whole society and every individual that needs to go through this “moral regeneration” destroy its own shell and wake up to feelings of empathy and acknowledge its “shame of detachment and estrangement” (Mintz 2001: 112-113).
It seems that Lumet continued in the tradition of representing Jews as non Jewish characters in the film, depriving them of unique religious, cultural, physical, and behavioral traits while preserving their status as victim (Bartov 2005: 96). Nazerman is not Jewish in his appearance but he has a stereotypical Jewish occupation. Before the war he lived a life of an assimilated academic, after the war he becomes an owner of a pawnshop: “Nazerman refuses to leave the Nazi universe and insists on finding its closest equivalent in the American slum of the 1960s. And here he “plays” the “Jew” that he never was, the “Jew” of anti-Semite fantasy, the product of centuries of persecution, the figure into which the Nazis had made him and which he, in a self-hating, flagellating, inexpressible silent rage, has taken upon himself” (Bartov 2005: 95).
The Israeli-born critic Ilan Avisar finds the portrayal of the Jews in the film offensive. According to him they are represented as “mindless, self-pitying, greedy, materialistic, and grotesque” unlike the black and Puerto Rican characters, who seem to be “sympathetic victims who are full of vitality, aspiration, and domestic or passionate love” (Mintz 2001: 107). Mintz mentions the contrast between the Christian world represented by Jesus and his warm and loving relationships with his mother and his girlfriend and the cold emotionless and hypocritical Jewish world represented by Nazerman and his sister-in-law’s family (Mintz 2001: 120).
Levinson on his article “The Maimed Body and the Tortured Soul: Holocaust Survivors in American Film” points out to the fact that the film (unlike the book) deprives Nazerman of external physical marks of his concentration camp victimization and concentrates on the effects of the experience on the survivor’s psyche (Levinson 2004: 151). However, Nazerman bears a very distinctive mark of his concentration camp experience: his tattooed arm. There is a scene in the film, in which Jesus asks Nazerman about his tattooed number. The attention the movie pays to Nazerman’s “mark” was rather unusual at the time of its release. For Nazerman it is a constant reminder of the past that he cannot erase. For Jesus it is a mysterious sign of a secret society. Both the ignorance and curiosity that Jesus shows hint at the social situation of the sixties. People should be eager to ask and to know.
Mintz argues that The Pawnbroker had a significant influence in shaping the image of the survivor in American culture: “we now see the figure emerging from the underground and establishing itself as a representative and therefore legitimate American type” (Mintz 2001: 115). The survivor here is a morally broken and disfigured man unable to feel anything but his own guilt. Mintz also mentions two existing conceptions of the survivor in the mid-sixties: “The one stresses the sterile dysfunctionality, and even depravity of the survivor, while the other stresses the generative and energetic, even aggressive, adaptation to renewed life” (Mintz 2001: 117). The Pawnbroker promotes the first “pathological” model.
Nazerman’s victimhood is his main distinguishing quality. Nazerman denies the earlier manifestations of victims as saintlike figures (The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)). Being a victim does not make him a better person, quite the opposite, it makes him emotionally dead and numbs him to the crime he is involved him and thus turns him into the role of oppressor; the victim becomes a victimizer. Nazerman faces an internal conflict between submitting to and resisting the injustice surrounding him. He is presented as our study example for the effects of repression and suppression of traumatic events on human mind but still keeps his unique Jewish suffering. In spite of the universal character of the film the Jews are singled out victims of the Holocaust in the film. Nazerman stands for the long Jewish history of suffering and persecution. In his lecture to Jesus Nazerman explains the Jewish life style as a response to and consequence of years of deprivation and oppression – “the eternal Jewish suffering”. The Holocaust is just on the top of the hill made of suffering. Nazerman is the epitome of walking dead man. He is unable to rise above his own suffering, he refuses to be liberated and saved (Bartov 2005: 96). Even though the end promises a certain salvation, the film avoids sentimentality. Lumet does not follow the end suggested by the book, where Nazerman forgives himself and reconnects with his family. There is no happy ending, no sudden change in Nazerman’s dead existence. He is woken up but not saved. And so is the society of victims and victimizers.
Alvin Rosenfeld argued that “films are not a replacement for historical knowledge of the Holocaust” (Doneson 1987: 205). I would add that films are often mirrors of their time. Throughout the thesis we have observed the development of the American Holocaust cinema in the wartime and postwar United States in context with the specific cultural and political situation. I have analyzed the most outstanding and successful Holocaust movies of each era in order to get a picture of a changing portrait of a Jew and the way the Holocaust was presented. Let us now summarize how these films talk to us, as if we were the audience of their time. In the thirties the American cinema was still not ready to directly approach the issue of the Jewish genocide, which was already looming on the European horizon. The House of Rothschild (1934) uses historical settings in order to send us an ambiguous message, which corresponds to the ambiguity of its current issue of a possible new immigration wave. The message is: “We look different, we behave different, we love money and power, we can manipulate and speculate but we can also work to your benefit. Do not be afraid of us but be alert. We are victims, can’t you see?” When The Great Dictator (1940) was released, the anti-Semitism in America was reaching its peak. Chaplin’s message is clearly expressed at the end of the film: “Let us unite and fight! Fight in the name of humanity against all evil dictatorships. We all are humane, we all belong to God. Let us all live happily together and not make any differences!” Chaplin stood both out of his character and out of his time in order to warn against the genocide, which the Americans did not want to see and to understand till several decades later. The movie was a great success partly because of Chaplin’s fame and his popular Tramp character. But the American viewers might have felt little bit uncomfortable at its end, when they were asked for active resistance on behalf of all humanity but in fact on behalf of the Jews in particular. Chaplin’s weapon is humor till the end, where the seriousness of the message overwhelms the viewer. It sounds socialist today and it sounded socialist then. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) addresses the Holocaust issue very indirectly through the theme most relevant for the American viewer of the fifties: social anti-Semitism. The public of the late forties was already familiar with the Holocaust reality thanks to the newsreel footages of the liberated camps. The film approaches the viewer through a gentile perspective of the main hero, and thus mediates the viewer the experience of being a Jew. Its message to the gentile audience is: “Hush! These are not Jews; these are Americans like you and me. They just go to another church, that’s all. So let them live their lives.” Its message to the Jews: “You have to work harder, do not hide, but become completely Americanized, get rid of everything you have that might remind us of your Jewishness and integrate!” The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) uses the ceremonial image of the Holocaust victim, which will become very popular several decades later. It takes the European historical Holocaust text written by a Jewish girl in hiding who found her death in a concentration camp, and transforms it into Hollywood love story with a happy ending. It is easy to judge and criticize from today’s point of view. It is easy to understand when we make the effort and consider the optimistic victorious time of its release. Everybody was supposed to start a new prosperous life, even and especially the survivors. The film’s message is: “Were you a victim, did you suffer and survive? Well, you are not the only one. Who cares about you being Jewish? What difference does it make? People suffer and kill but they are still good in heart. So forget and forgive, believe in God and live your life.” Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) presented the American audience for the first time with philosophical questions of responsibility and guilt. Its main message could be expressed like this: “You said that you did not kill, you just followed the orders. Who am I to decide whose guilt it was? I myself have the responsibility for not having acted enough in order to save human lives. But there are principles of justice that cannot be deceived. You knew you were killing, even if by having done nothing.” The Pawnbroker (1964) represents the first film after the Second World War that makes us enter tortured soul of a Holocaust survivor. It makes us look and understand and feel, not only how it was then but how it is now. The survivor’s message sounds like this: “Do not look at me! I am not here! I am gone. Invisible. Dead for a long time. I do not want you to know. I do not want to feel. I do not want to live. I cannot speak or cry. Please help me out of my misery!” Film’s message to all: “Wake up! Open your eyes and look around you. Can’t you see what is happening! Can’t you feel empathy at all! Go and do something, it is your responsibility, change the world and help those, who are discriminated!”
I agree that feature films cannot and should not become a substitute for historical knowledge but I also think that they can and may provide a stimulus for gaining further knowledge and stirring interest both in the past and the present. They tell us a lot if we listen and look carefully with an open mind. They do not give us a clear picture of how things were and are; they are just like mirrors offering us reflections of the real life. Sometimes the reflected images are distorted and broken and it is upon us what we believe in. What else is there to be said about the Holocaust in the film? It may seem that the cinema has exhausted itself that everything has already been shown in all possible ways. What means can the film use in order to attract, shock and educate? What new ways are there to show what we already know? The Holocaust survivors are dying and so are their memories. Are their recorded stories more real than any Hollywood Holocaust movie? What is the future of their past? The Holocaust has been documented and made used of many different ways. Its story has been told with both documentary seriousness and comedy style laugh. It has been both adored and denied. It has become a word separated from what it used to refer to, a modern metaphor of tragedy. In order not to forget it has been put in stone and institutionalized. What else is there to do? The answer is the same as always: let film tell the story through our eyes, through the eyes of the 21st century people.
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Confessions of a Nazi Spy. U.S., 1939. Director: Anatole Litvak.
Crossfire. U.S., 1947. Director: Edward Dmytryk.
The Diary of Anne Frank. U.S., 1959. Director: George Stevens.
Exodus. U.S., 1960. Director: Otto Preminger.
Gentleman’s Agreement. U.S., 1947. Director: Elia Kazan.
The Great Dictator. U.S., 1940. Director: Charles Chaplin.
Holocaust. U.S., 1978. NBC/TV, Director: Marvin Chomsky.
The House of Rothschild. U.S., 1934. Director: Alfred Werker.
Judgment at Nuremberg. U.S., 1961. Director: Stanley Kramer.
The Mortal Storm. U.S., 1940. Director: Frank Borzage.
Night and Fog. France, 1955. Director: Alain Resnais.
The Pawnbroker. U.S., 1965. Director: Sidney Lumet.
Sophie’s Choice. U.S., 1982. Director: Alan Pakula.
To Be Or Not To Be. U.S., 1942. Director: Ernst Lubitsch.
The Young Lions. U.S., 1958. Director: Edward Dmytryk.