By Sam Moffit
Night Will Fall 2014 Directed by Andre’ Singer, written by Lynette Singer Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and Jasper Britton
The Pawnbroker 1964 Directed by Sidney Lumet Written by Norton S Fine and David Friedkin from a novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, starring Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters and Jaime Sanchez
I met a Holocaust survivor very recently. I was in a discount store, waiting in line to pay for my purchases. In front of me was an older gentleman, wearing a cap that looked like a military veteran’s cap. I enjoy talking with other veterans and thanking them for their service. I always want to hear what other veterans have done in service to our country.
“Is that a military cap you’re wearing?” “No, but I survived World War II.” He said that with a German accent, so my next question: “Were you in Germany and did you survive the air raids?” “No, I survived the Holocaust, I was in Bergen Belsen.”
For once in my life I was speechless, I mean what can you say? “I’m sorry to hear that. It’s terrible. It must have been traumatic?” Any comment seems so unnecessary, so futile when you meet someone who managed to survive such a miserable experience.
All I could think of to say was “I’m sorry, you must have been a kid and seen things no kid should see?” “I saw my father, my mother, two sisters and my brother, all killed.” Now I really didn’t know what to say. I managed to congratulate him on surviving and told him I was sorry that so many people in this country, and in Germany, didn’t believe it happened or approved of it happening. It never occurred to me to ask to see his tattooed number, I took him at his word. It would have been too morbid to ask such a thing.
His response to my comment on Holocaust denial was a simple shrug and “I know.” I will never forget this encounter and I say this as an introduction to two films that show exactly what the Holocaust was like, one a documentary absolutely showing that the Holocaust happened and the other a fictional portrait of ‘a survivor finding his humanity after years of trying to live without emotions of any kind.
I learned about the Holocaust very early. My brother Philip had a paperback, The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, which I read cover to cover in amazement and horror. I was only 12 years old, I read this book more than once trying to get a sense of the concept of genocide, that a nation could decide that an entire ethnic group should be arrested and killed. All these years later, I’m still trying to come to terms with that, and the fact that some people in this country live in willful denial that it happened. Night Will Fall is an exceptional and horrifying documentary, made up of footage shot by American, English, Canadian and Russian army photographers who were asked to film everything during the liberation of the concentration camps. General Dwight Eisenhower himself, among other military leaders, ordered it done because “people will never believe it happened.”
The footage had to be put into the hands of no less than a director Alfred Hitchcock and produced by Sidney Bernstein. The documentary was to be screened in theaters in England and the United States. For reasons now lost, but easily imagined, this never happened, the footage was shelved and only seen in 2014.
I recommend anyone with a working heart or brain to watch Night Will Fall, but be warned, it’s some strong stuff. I don’t have a weak stomach, but I had to stop this film several times, often for a few days, to find some balance.
It’s not a date movie or light entertainment or something to watch over dinner. I’ve seen Holocaust documentaries before, huge piles of dead bulls sleeping in mass graves. Take these images and increase them by 1000%. Combat photographers were ordered not to do sophisticated camera work, Allied leaders did not want anyone to question the footage. There are long panning shots of acres, and acres, and more acres of piles of corpses, stacked like cordwood or haystacks, or piles of garbage. English, American and Canadian troops ordered all captured German soldiers, and sometimes civilians, to help transport these corpses to mass graves for burial. This was in direct violation of the Geneva Convention, if any German soldiers complained I doubt they were taken seriously. The Russians, meanwhile, shot down any German soldiers they captured. The numbers alone are staggering, it recently emerged, using the Nazis’ own records, that far more than 9 million people were murdered in the name of National Socialism. I would say Holocaust deniers should all be made to see this, but I doubt it will change anyone’s mind. As an aside, I know the smell of death, I worked for a time, very recently, for a funeral home. I did what they called first aid transport, picked up and delivered to their care center the dead from hospital morgues, county medical examiners and nursing homes. The smell of the dead is unmistakable, strong and sometimes overpowering. So I can very well imagine what those killing fields smelled like.
Night Will Fall is narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, Jasper Britten and Leonard Berney. It’s a damning indictment of how far humanity can sink in just a few short years. And saddest, the genocide continued, the Soviet Union under Stalin killed even more people than the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Serbian “ethnic cleansing”, the purges in Indonesia in the 1960s (detailed in Act of Killing 2012, another hard-to-watch documentary). And Night Will Fall ends with a warning, that if we’re not vigilant, it will happen again. This is evidenced by the radical right in this country insisting either that it never happened or that the Nazis did not go far enough. Let these people do what they want and it will happen again.
By the way, I worked for a time at the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida as a security guard. On the first day, I was allowed to tour the museum to familiarize myself with the layout and the self-guided tours that customers could take with an audio wand. I made it a point to watch everything and listen to every audio description of the tour. There are letters written and photos taken by the Nazis. A Wehrmacht soldier said he received extra rations of schnapps because of the hard work of shooting women and children. This museum also has one of the railroad cars in which Jews and others were herded, like animals, and taken to the death camps. I swear there was a black cloud hanging over that car, I couldn’t bring myself to touch it, I said a silent prayer for whoever got to ride in that wagon until the hell on Earth awaited them.
Equally gruesome, in its own way, is The Pawnbroker starring Rod Steiger (The Illustrated Man) and directed by Sidney Lumet (The Verdict, Prince of the City). The effect of Holocaust survival is embodied in Sol Nazerman, The Pawnbroker of the title. Sol lives on Long Island with members of her extended family. He travels to New York every day to tend to his pawn shop in the basement, dark, locked up, too much like the cage the Nazis threw him and his family into, there not so long ago. He has an apprentice, Jesus (Jaime Sanchez, The Wild Bunch) who wants to learn the pawnshop trade but also has friends who discover that Sol’s shop is laundering money for an uptown pimp, Rodriguez played by Brock Peters (Lost in the Stars, The McMasters.) Once a week, Sol accepts an envelope full of cash from the pimp’s “associate”. The film teaches us in a very subtle way that Rodriguez is not interested in the women he procures, that his associate is more than a friend or an employee.
We meet a variety of New York characters who enter Sol’s shop to sell items, sometimes to buy. A dollar seems to be his best offer for anything. He is rude to each of them, Sol tried to shut down his emotions and does not want close contact with anyone. Most hurtful of all is a social worker who visits neighborhood businesses, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald (Harry and Tonto, Arthur). She has an obvious attraction to Sol and he makes it clear to her that he’s not that interested in being really mean to her. Juano Hernandez (Sergeant Rutledge, young man with a horn) is a solitary and shy man, a book reader who recognizes Sol as a very intelligent man. His attempt to discuss philosophy with Sol is met with rude comments and the hurt on his face is incredibly sad, Sol is so rude to him that he recoils like he’s been slapped. Throughout the film, Sol reminisces about the time before his family was rounded up and arrested, for being Jewish, and the time spent in a concentration camp. When Jesus’ girlfriend (Thelma Oliver) tries to tempt Sol, he remembers seeing his wife turned into a prostitute by the Nazis, which is not uncommon. On the train to the camp, the Jews are crammed into carriages so tightly there is no place to sit or lie down, Sol tries to keep her young son on her shoulders but gives in to exhaustion , the boy is suffocated under the crush of humanity.
Jesus’ girlfriend is one of the women in Rodriguez’s stable. The plan is for Jesus and his friends (including Raymond St. Jacques and Charles Dierkop) to collect the money Sol collects from Rodriguez. Jesus and his girlfriend will then have enough money to leave town and start life anew. Of course the robbery is botched, Sol doesn’t care about being killed, Jesus takes the bullet and stumbles outside and in a moment of unbelievable agony, Sol realizes he really cared about Jesus and finds his humanity, at a high price. Rod Steiger in an interview with Filmfax magazine said he was most proud of The Pawnbroker and rightly so, it’s the performance of a lifetime.
There is more, so much more. I saw The Pawnbroker on network television years ago in a censored version. The dvd is flawless, uncut, it’s devastating. The black and white cinematography captures a snapshot of New York in the early 1960s. There are no specials, it is available on blue ray which I have not seen.
As Night Will Fall makes clear, we need to be ever vigilant or it will happen again.