Film historian to visit GVSU to celebrate 50th anniversary of 'The Pawnbroker'

First Hollywood movie from perspective of Holocaust survivor

By Carly Simpson | 3/16/14 6:10pm

Grand Valley State University will celebrate the 50th anniversary of director Sidney Lumet’s 1964 drama “The Pawnbroker” with a free screening and a lecture by film historian Annette Insdorf, a professor at Columbia University.

The film’s main character, Sol Nazerman, is a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who lost his wife and family at the camp. Nazerman now owns a pawn shop in Harlem, and customers visiting the shop spark traumatic memories and force him to deal with his emotional detachment from people and life.

“‘The Pawnbroker’ is finally about the long-term effects of historical trauma and how people are haunted by them,” said Rob Franciosi, an English professor at GVSU. “Sol Nazerman, the main character, is tormented by his memories of the Holocaust and this film attempts to depict, through visual means, the very nature of that torment. It also reminds us that the effects of trauma are both long-lasting and extremely hard to overcome.”

Franciosi is the driving force behind the event and has been trying for years to arrange a time for Insdorf to visit campus. This semester, Franciosi is also teaching HNR 311: Remembering the Holocaust, and decided the film was an obvious choice due to its anniversary.

“Seeing a classic film on a large screen in the company of others should be a fundamental part of any liberal education,” Franciosi said. “Watching it on your laptop or iPad, even on a big-screen TV, is just not the same. And having the chance both to watch ‘The Pawnbroker’ and then, the next day, to hear an expert lecture on it — well, that’s a great opportunity, something that enhances our cultural lives at Grand Valley.”

The film will be shown March 18 from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at 102 Loutit Hall on GVSU’s Allendale Campus. On the following day, Insdorf will give a lecture from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the same location.

The film is based on the book by Edward Lewis Wallant. It is the first Hollywood movie about a survivor’s perspective of the Holocaust.

“Peoples have been murdering each other for as long as there have been people,” Franciosi said. “Yet elements of the Holocaust — its mechanized nature, its eruption in the heart of Western culture, its transnational reach — suggest that it was something new. In the 70 years since the camps were liberated, there have been hundreds of books about the subject and thousands of articles. We probably know more about the who, what, where and when of this event than any other in history. Yet the ‘why’ still eludes us.”

The movie came out nearly 20 years after the end of World War II. Today, war films are created much sooner. There are already movies depicting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Franciosi believes this is because people today want feel-good films.

“Even today most American movie-goers desire happy endings or Batman defeating his nemesis,” he said. “For those 20 years after the war, Hollywood was either unwilling to look at such horror as depicted in ‘The Pawnbroker’ or felt that audience would not want to view such material.”

Franciosi added that at the heart of the movie is a man who does not want to talk about his horrific past, in part because he does not believe that his American listeners will understand.

The event is sponsored by the Joseph Stevens Freedom Endowment, the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies, the Frederik Meijer Honors College and the School of Communications.

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