Like Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence a few years before, Rod Steiger’s Sol Nazerman—an East Harlem Holocaust survivor, pawnshop owner, and misanthrope par excellence—is a tour de force performance of both subtle and explosive terror, dread, and brilliance.
The film in question—The Pawnbroker, a 1964 drama—is unlike any Holocaust film before it. Adapted from an acclaimed Edward Lewis Wallant novel, the film was the first American movie to approach the Holocaust from a survivor’s perspective (not to mention the first to feature bare breasts during the Production Code’s reign).
Steiger plays a bitter, hateful former university professor who had his livelihood and family stripped from him during the war. Instead of flashbacks to concentration camps, the film concerns itself with the bleak horror of post-war reality. Nazerman is surrounded by well-intending people of all races and creeds—and he hates them all equally.
We’re not the only ones to think so: in 2008, the Library of Congress singled out The Pawnbroker for preservation, as a film of “cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance.”