Losing Orientation in Time and Space: American Cinema and the Psychotic Holocaust Survivor (Web Exclusive)
by Marat Grinberg
Paul Schrader’s film Adam Resurrected (2008) tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, a German Jewish cabaret performer (Jeff Goldblum), who is spared death in a gas chamber by becoming the camp commandant’s “dog”: he is told to bark, crawl on all fours, and eat from a dog bowl. Deeply traumatized and violently psychotic, he ends up in Israel in the Sixties where he becomes a patient in a psychiatric asylum specifically established for such cases. It is only natural that Schrader, the creator of the hyperbolically unhinged Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (1976), revived it in Adam Resurrected, based on the groundbreaking 1969 novel by an Israeli author, Yoram Kaniuk, who spent his formative years in New York’s Greenwich Village in the Fifties and who had subsequently become the bête noire of Israeli literature. Born in Palestine in 1930, Kaniuk revealed the deep disconnect between Holocaust survivors and a burgeoning Israeli society. Indeed, he himself bore the unlived Holocaust trauma: he claimed that he was the ghost of a Jew shot in the Galician ravines in 1941.
Schrader described his film as unique: his Holocaust survivor is “odd.” Unlike other Holocaust films, it’s not reverential toward the catastrophe and it is not obsessed with historical veracity. Yet—and either Schrader is not aware of this or does not want to acknowledge his sources—Goldblum’s unhinged protagonist is a throwback to the image of the survivor, in fact an homage to it, developed in the earliest American Holocaust cinema. There are only a few such films, yet they constitute a crucial and largely forgotten part of the history of American grappling with the war, the Holocaust, and, above all, the character of its Jewish victims. It is not surprising that it was precisely the filmmakers who honed in on this unnerving image of the survivor, already present in literature and psychiatry of the time. Rooted in the traditions of American film noir, their notion of the survivor is distinctly and deeply American; these early Holocaust filmmakers viewed the very idea of the positive hero able to overcome life’s and history’s challenges with apprehension.
We might think of these early Holocaust antiheroes as “noir” survivors. He is a psychopath or even a criminal suffering from amnesia and/or the inability to overcome trauma, making him—for a male protagonist is featured in each of the films—incapable of living in the present or constructing any viable future. This survivor is a German Jew, either completely assimilated or, even when not, still removed from the heartland of European Jewish life in Poland and the epicenter of the Nazis’ mass murder of European Jewry. Three films—Edward Dmytryk’s The Juggler (1953), Max Nosseck’s Singing in the Dark (1956), and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1965)—do offer some sort of resolution or redemptive ending, which in the case of The Juggler and The Pawnbroker, however, does not nullify the earlier traumatic premise. The Pawnbroker, the latest and clearly the most artistically accomplished of the three, builds on The Juggler and Singing in the Dark, drastically modifying them, and establishes what will become the dominant image of the survivor in American culture of the day.
This portrayal of the survivor radically departs from the other early Holocaust films, especially those from Eastern and Central Europe. The remarkable Yiddish film, Unzere Kinder, produced in Poland in 1948, takes place in an orphanage for Jewish children who had survived the Holocaust. Any sense of trauma and loss, suffered by the children and more generally by Polish Jewry at large, is counterbalanced by their fortitude and perseverance. The future rests on the shoulders of these children, which, as the film suggests, may very well, in Socialist Realist lingo, be bright. Children play a similar role in other films of the period dealing with the Jewish trauma and the postwar aftermath: Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948) and Geza von Radvanyi and Béla Bálazs’s Somewhere in Europe, shot in Hungary the same year, walk a fine line between reflecting, through flashbacks, on the horrors of the war and the need to overcome them.
Long is the Road (Lang ist der Veg) is another case in point. Shot in Yiddish on location at Camp Landsberg, the largest Jewish displaced persons (DP) camp in Germany, in 1949, the film fluctuates between depicting mourning, pain, and remembrance and, once again, the survivors’ perseverance and fortitude and their desire to rebuild their lives. While each film is colored by their respective ideologies—toward a renewal of Jewish life in Poland in Unzere Kinder, which would mostly fail, and towards Zionism in Long is The Road—they largely suggest that as horrific as the Holocaust was, it was, nevertheless, only another catastrophe suffered by the Jews, from which they, as did earlier generations, would be able to move on.
What these films unmistakably showcase is that the prevailing idea that any—and especially any artistic—response to the Holocaust was delayed because of the posttraumatic nature of the experience is historically false. When it came to Jewish writers, historians, and filmmakers, whether working in Yiddish, Polish, Russian, French or English, as well as Hebrew, there was no delay or hesitation on their part in reacting to the catastrophe. As historian David Cesarani aptly sums up the point, “contrary to the notion that individual survivors were silent or too traumatized to act, they had mounted a frenetic, global effort to transmit information about the Jewish catastrophe. If anything, they succeeded too well, too soon…By the 1950s the first layer of historiography and literature had been laid. Everything else rested on this achievement.”
The centerpiece of “this achievement” is the “survivor” who clearly constitutes a central trope of any commentary on the Holocaust, on page and on screen. Like Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” described by Walter Benjamin, the survivor’s “face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” Yet he’s propelled into the future, “while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.” The survivor’s uniqueness is that he exists in a transitional state—he resides in both worlds, ours and that of the war, bringing with it the notions of witnessing, chronicling, mourning, testifying, and, at times, regeneration and renewal.
No single image of the survivor most closely replicates the postwar experience of the actual survivors. Undoubtedly the authentic postwar life stories were varied: trauma and pain coexist with survivors who struggled to come to terms with the past and rebuild their lives. Our three films vividly illustrate three interestingly different aspects of the representation of their struggles.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk, The Juggler was shot on location in Israel in 1952. Based on the 1952 novel by Michael Blankfort, who also wrote the script, the film was produced by Stanley Kramer, who was already clearly preoccupied with the Holocaust, a concern that would later lead to his Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Ship of Fools (1965). Dmytryk, of East European origin though not a Jew, was a master of noir cinema and a political leftist who was jailed for refusing to cooperate with McCarthy’s anticommunist congressional committee. (He later testified and was shunned by his friends). His film Crossfire (1947), a noir about anti-Semitism, made clear his sympathy for Jews. It is not surprising that he was intrigued by Blankfort’s novel and was asked to direct The Juggler.
The protagonist of the film is Hans Mueller, played by Kirk Douglas at the height of his stardom. A German Jew who survived the camps, where he lost his wife and children, Mueller comes to the newly established state of Israel. In the novel, only his mother is Jewish and his detachment from anything Jewish is emphasized. An obvious antecedent of Schrader’s character, he had been a famous juggler in Germany, but suffered from posttraumatic dislocation after the war. He sees Israeli policemen as Nazi storm troopers and therefore hates the Jewish state. In an altercation with one of them, he severely injures the policeman, and believes that he has, in fact, killed him. Trying to hide, he comes upon an Israeli boy who takes him to a kibbutz, where Mueller regains some sort of emotional composure and falls in love with a young Israeli woman. The authorities search for him across the country, and eventually discover him in the kibbutz. In the last scene, after a painful cathartic experience, shot in a disorienting close-up of his contorted face, his eyes rolling, he begs for help.
While, according to Dmytryk’s memoir, he was enthralled with Israel, which he called the “hardest working young country in the world,” the film projects Mueller’s anxiety onto the Israeli landscape, making it resemble a Nazi camp. A few minutes into the film, which begins with footage, some authentic and some not, of survivors arriving in Israel by ship into the Haifa port, and enhanced by the jolly nondiegetic music in the background, the soundtrack abruptly shifts into grim and dissonant notes, as the buses carrying the survivors enter what looks like a camp zone surrounded by barbed wire but which is, in fact, an Israeli checkpoint.
In the novel, Mueller is not an exception but part of a wider phenomenon: some Holocaust survivors, radically disoriented by their experience in the camps, have turned into criminals. Though the police and population at large sympathize with them, they are nevertheless hunted down. While it’s hard to find evidence for such actual cases, there’s no doubt that there was much suspicion and doubt about the survivors, particularly among the ruling Israeli Socialist elite, led by David Ben-Gurion. In the words of one such Israeli envoy in Europe, the survivors would make Israel “one big madhouse.” Others feared that they would “poison” the country. The Hebrew newspaper Haaretz wrote in 1945, “We have to see things with open eyes…The few that remain to us in Europe are not necessarily Judaism’s best…[and] are suspected of low morality.” The proliferation of psychoanalytic theories about the survivor’s experiences in both Israel and America helped to solidify the image of the survivor as a sick figure (Mueller is interviewed by a psychoanalyst in the film).
The novel draws on the stereotypes of the survivors, but redefines them in light of Jewish normalcy, for which Israel supposedly provides an image. The detective searching for Mueller is an Orthodox Jew—a bizarre detail in a deeply secular Israel in the Fifties—who justifies his hunting of the survivors and bringing them to justice by the fact that “we are at last, thank God, like other people…Mueller is a human being who committed a crime. I am now free to say so and to think so.” In the film, he is not religious, but his office is adorned with a heavy quote from Deuteronomy 25:1, “They shall defend the righteous and condemn the wicked.”
Much more than the film, the novel betrays the gnawing American Jewish anxiety of the time. Blankfort, an interesting and sadly forgotten writer, presents juggling as the symbol of the Jew’s precarious existence in the diaspora, including, presumably, in the United States, where “every Jew [is] more or less an artist of living in suspension and balance, never knowing when he shall fall, held up only by forces and tensions, even whims, beyond his control.” Douglas plays Mueller as an ironic trickster, who makes “living in suspension and balance” perilous, but fun. Yet both the film and the novel establish that if there is any redemption for survivors, it will come from a revitalized Jewish present—in Israel—where Mueller learns that “being a Jew is not so bad.” Starkly different from the earlier Yiddish images of the persevering and heroic survivor deeply in touch with his Jewishness, The Juggler still retains some sort of positive Jewishness, but does so very cautiously, especially in terms of its painfully ambivalent view of the Israeli project. The ostensibly cathartic ending promises no guarantee that Mueller’s treatment will be successful. There’s a good chance that he will always remain deranged and wracked with guilt over the death of his family and what he’s done in Israel. In Blankfort’s apt formulation, Mueller is “a man losing his orientation in time and space.”
Singing in the Dark
Singing in the Dark, today a largely forgotten B-movie, was directed by Max Nosseck, a German Jewish émigré to Hollywood, who seemed to have no special attachment to Jewishness. The film is notable for its cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, the younger brother of Dziga Vertov, a close colleague of Jean Vigo and a future Academy Award winner, who would also later work with Sidney Lumet on The Pawnbroker. The film tells a somewhat outlandish story: Leo, a German Jew and Holocaust survivor (Moyshe Oysher), comes to the United States where his magnificent voice is accidentally discovered. With the help of comedian Joey Napoleon, played by the actual Borscht Belt comedian Joey Adams, Leo starts performing in nightclubs. Since he can sing only when intoxicated, he risks drinking himself to death. Knocked unconscious one night by the gangsters associated with Napoleon, he remembers that his name is David and that he was the son of a great Berlin cantor. In the cathartic scene, shot in the ruins of the central Berlin synagogue, he imagines himself singing “El Male Rachamim,” the solemn Jewish prayer for the dead; he sings for his parents and all the Jews killed during the war. The films ends with Leo, now David, fully reclaiming his Jewishness, becoming a cantor and offering thanks to America.
While by no means a violent criminal like Hans Mueller in The Juggler, who also has bouts of amnesia, Leo, like Mueller, suffers from a severe psychiatric condition and is involved, however unwittingly, in the criminal world. The redemption and reclamation of this noir character’s Jewishness is much less nuanced than in The Juggler, but it is also more convincing. The fact that he first sings “El Male Rachamim” in English emphasizes that American Jewry is a true heir to the world destroyed in the Holocaust; unlike in The Juggler, the future of Judaism is in America. The film imposes this view, but fails to make it fully believable. It is deeply unnatural that Oysher’s character would imagine himself performing a Jewish prayer in English at the crucial moment of remembering his true Jewish self.
It is noteworthy, however, that David is, like Mueller, a German Jew. The world of Yiddish-speaking Polish Jewry—the locus of the Holocaust—remains unmentioned. If in the novel The Juggler there are a few Polish Jewish characters, the absence of such figures in Singing in the Dark is all the more striking and odd because of the central presence of Moyshe Oysher—one of the symbols of prewar Yiddish culture, a famous cantor, and the star of such blockbuster prewar Yiddish talkies as The Singing Blacksmith (1938) and The Cantor’s Son (1937). We can only speculate as to why. Perhaps Oysher, Nosseck, and Adams, who produced the film, tried to reach a wider American Jewish audience, which was apprehensive about their predominantly East European Jewish origins, rather than only the survivors’ communities. Perhaps for Oysher to associate Yiddish with anything criminal and sick was abominable. Yet the fact that they place Leo in a criminal world suggests that, as in Israel, the survivors, many of whom came from the DP camps, were widely viewed as suspicious.
Despite its failures, the film is a cinematographic gem, primarily thanks to Kaufman, one of the most gifted cinematographers of his generation. The shots of Berlin ruins at the start of the film are eerie and hypnotic, and evoke those depicted in Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948). The cathartic scene in the ruined synagogue, in which Leo’s shadow, in the noir manner, is reflected on the sanctuary’s walls, and the empty dome covered in scaffolding resembles barbed wire, is sublime. The dark sky above the dome seems to contain patches of smog, which brings to mind the camps’ crematoria. While Singing in the Dark and The Pawnbroker are linked cinematographically through Kaufman, the eventual positive image of the survivor presented by Oysher would be completely supplanted by The Pawnbroker’s deeply disturbed and disturbing protagonist, who, through Steiger’s affecting portrayal, would for the first time consequentially introduce the Holocaust into American cinema and culture and reach a very large audience.
Based on Edward Lewis Wallant’s remarkable novel, published in 1961, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker is an equally remarkable achievement. Though much has been written about the film, there has been no notice taken of the affiliation of the Steiger character with the earlier survivor figures. The Pawnbroker crucially draws on both the survivor’s features in The Juggler and Singing in the Dark. The protagonist, Saul Nazerman (Rod Steiger), a former academic in Germany and a camp survivor, owns a pawnshop in Harlem which serves as a front for the local criminal boss. Nazerman is a walking dead man and is portrayed as a modern-day Shylock. The trauma and shock of the war has rendered him incapable of experiencing any pleasure or pain. Indeed, he is often cruel, especially to those most in need of his help and support.
Like Hans Mueller, he “is a man losing his orientation in time and space.” When he enters a subway car, distraught, the crowded car turns in his mind into a train carrying Jews to the death camp, a recurrent trope in later Holocaust fiction and cinema. His amnesia is more self-imposed and guilt-driven rather than clinical: he experiences sudden provoked but involuntary recollections of the past and tries hard to bury them within himself. There’s nothing that suggests any possibility of renewal about him.
The Pawnbroker dispenses with any picture of America as a haven for the Jews. The ghetto in Harlem operates similarly to a camp; the film also offers a very unsavory picture of American Jews through Saul’s sister and her family with whom he lives in the suburbs. But it does provide its own redemptive possibility which draws on Christian imagery. At the end, during a robbery attempt, Saul’s assistant, Jesus (Jaime Sanchez), who earlier wanted to learn from Saul the “Jewish” wisdom of worshipping money, takes the bullet meant for him. Jesus’s death, with its overt Christian connotations, causes Saul to experience some sort of catharsis: he pierces his hand in a way suggesting that he has been crucified like Jesus or, like St. Dominic, who acquired the stigmata associated with Christ’s agony. Saul emits a horrifying silent scream of lament, perhaps not so much for the Jewish dead as for the Harlem world around him. Kaufman photographs his face and body with a documentary precision in acute close-up. In the film’s last fundamentally indeterminate scene, he disappears in the crowd. He certainly hasn’t become a changed man, although perhaps a viewer might hope that this distant, cold, bitter man has re-entered life in some emotionally tangible form.
Wallant’s novel draws heavily on various tropes of Holocaust fiction of the time. Saul’s wife is raped by an SS officer in the camp, linking it with the then popular Hebrew novels of the author and Holocaust survivor Ka-Tsetnik, which are replete with images of Jewish women’s sexual humiliation in the camps. Ka-Tsetnik’s novels were bestsellers in Israel in the Fifties. Both in the novel and on screen, Saul refuses an offer by a black prostitute precisely because sleeping with her would turn him, in his mind, into a Nazi. Unlike Hans Mueller, whom Blankfort ominously depicts in the novel as a sex-starved predator, Saul is repulsed by sexuality as well as by any offers of human intimacy from the social worker Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald) or Jesus. The novel also foreshadows certain Holocaust tropes. In the camp, Saul was part of a Sonderkommando unit, cleaning up gas chambers, a topic that would remain untouched in Holocaust literature and film for decades to come, the Hungarian Son of Saul (2015) being its most recent and prominent portrayal. The novel, unlike the film, is replete with Yiddishisms and references to Jewish life in New York. Though Nazerman is a bearer of European culture, who disdains the Yiddish world, rather than an observant Jew, he is very much a part of this world.
While the novel plays with Christological tropes as well, it offers an ending much more Jewish in sentiment than the film through Saul’s own prayer for the dead:
“Rest in peace, Ortiz, Mendel, Rubin, Naomi, David…rest in peace,” he said, still crying a little, but mostly for himself. He took a great breath of air, which seemed to fill parts of his lungs unused for a long time. And he took the pain of it, if not happily, like a martyr, at least willingly, like an heir. Then he began walking to the subway to take the long, underground journey to Tessie’s house, to help her mourn.
The Jewish dead loom large here, with Jesus Ortiz portrayed as another victim, not as a savior. Rather than an apocalyptic martyr figure, which invokes Christianity, Saul is an heir, which invokes Jewish continuity. By helping Tessie—his lover, the wife of his friend who died in the camp—mourn for her father, himself a survivor who just died and whom Saul refused to mourn earlier, Saul enters a traditional cycle of Jewish time—that of mourning, but also potentially of renewal. The fact that the film dispenses with this Jewish content and symbolism speaks not only to Lumet’s desire to translate the Holocaust into the terms that would be palatable for the larger predominantly Christian culture, where anti-Semitism loomed large, but also reveals much about his Jewish anxieties.
It is striking that whereas in the novel Saul is a Polish Jew, in the film he is a German Jew. Thus, like The Juggler and Singing in the Dark, of which he certainly could have known through Kaufman, The Pawnbroker leaves the world of Polish Jewry untouched or at the very least at a very remote distance. This is deliberate and remarkable considering that Lumet grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household with a father who was an actor in Yiddish theater. In 1960, Lumet directed for television an adaptation of S. Ansky’s cult Jewish play The Dybbuk. This brilliant adaptation is suffused with symbolic allusions to the Holocaust. (It’s worth recalling that The Dybbuk was also a great Yiddish film produced in Poland in 1937 by Michał Waszyński). Moreover, in an introduction to the play, Lumet links directly his fondness for it with his own Jewish roots. For him, the world of Yiddishkeit remained a sacred zone of a sort in line with the deification of the destroyed civilization that emerged in Yiddish writing in Eastern Europe and America already on the eve of war and fully in its aftermath.
In the Pawnbroker, he does not dare approach this destroyed world, but offers a glimpse of it in the opening scene, when Saul has a vision of his parents—traditional Jews (the father is played by Lumet’s own father, Baruch Lumet)—in a pastoral East European setting. Rather than explaining anything about Saul, who in these symbolic flashbacks is clean-shaven, clearly modern, and assimilated, it signals Lumet’s own reverence for the demolished Jewish universe, which he contrasts with the consumerism of American Jews, and puts aside in order to construct his disturbing image of the survivor as a sick man. The flashback ends grimly, with the parents threatened and Saul shielding his children from an unseen force; the scene then immediately blends into the dismal American suburban landscape, suggesting that it, on par with the war, is the threatening force. This also suggests, at least in part, why he makes Saul a German Jew—to transform a Polish Jew into an emotional zombie and a criminal pawn, possibly awakened by Jesus, would have been too painful and morally dubious. Oysher might have thought similarly in Singing in the Dark. In his later A Stranger Among Us (1992), Lumet would offer a much more explicit albeit sentimental celebration of this traditional Jewish world, secluded from the rest of America, where the rabbi is a Holocaust survivor.
To make the Holocaust part of the American cinematic discourse—artistic, independent, socially minded—of the day, Lumet infuses the film with Christological and racial imagery and strips away the novel’s Jewish symbolism. He invokes the tropes of criminality and psychosis in The Juggler and Singing in the Dark, and makes them stark, irredeemable, and devoid of any Zionist or positive American content. Lumet’s Saul Nazerman truly has “the pile of debris grow before him skyward.” It would take some time until American writers and filmmakers would draw on these tropes of the survivor as an emotional wreck, but apply them to Polish Jews, whose Jewishness would be complex, yet integral to their character. Saul Bellow would do it in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, whose protagonist is a Polish Jewish intellectual, who crawls out of a pit with dead Jewish bodies and is stranded in an apocalyptic New York of the Sixties. Paul Mazursky, too, would focus on Polish Jewish characters in his brilliant adaptation of I. B. Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story (1989), whose Yiddish-speaking characters are the walking dead in New York, perpetually at a loss after being cut off from their orientation in time and space.
The strong echoes of The Juggler, Singing in the Dark, and The Pawnbroker in Mazursky’s film and then as it was later reformulated in Adam Resurrected, speak to the importance and longevity of this body of work as a striking subchapter in American film history and in the film historiography of the Holocaust. The key conflict of this historiography is encased in the dissonance between the “noir” and the more idealized version of survivors that came to dominate American conceptions with the release of the Holocaust TV series in the late Seventies and Schindler’s List in the early Nineties.
Marat Grinberg is a professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Reed College and is the author of Aleksandr Askoldov: The Commissar and co-editor of Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1