TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected” doesn’t lack for ambition.
Based on Yoram Kaniuk’s highly imaginative though controversial Holocaust novel, the story has echoes of “Catch-22” crossed with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
The madness of Holocaust survivors is here played mainly for dark comedy. The film’s dazzling central performance in a mental institute finds Jeff Goldblum in the role of his career as a former German-Jewish circus clown and nightclub performer who still can’t resist performing a magic trick or seducing a nurse. You might rub people the wrong way with this approach, but the challenge of finding the right tone for each scene — in the clown’s interaction with nurses and doctors dazzled by his undoubted brilliance; the flashbacks to his Berlin career and the degradation of the camps; his descent into madness and confrontation with a feral boy who believes himself to be a dog — doesn’t seem to daunt Schrader in the slightest.
The film is not a complete success. Somehow the clown and dog-boy are too easily cured, at least in a 106-minute movie, and for all the true virtuosity of Goldblum’s performance, the character seems more of a metaphor for survivor’s guilt than a flesh-and-blood man. Still you’ve got to hand it to Schrader: He pulls off enough of this impressionistic comedy to provoke passions and arguments anew about a topic that seems done to death.
The film should cause a stir at festivals and in adult specialty venues, though grosses probably will be modest. Other than “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful,” the Holocaust does not usually light up the box office. Nevertheless, the film will strike responsive cords in North America, Europe and of course Israel.
Goldblum’s Adam Stein survived the death camps not only because he could play the violin while fellow Jews including his own family marched to their deaths, but also because a sadistic camp commander (Willem Dafoe) wanted Adam’s entertainment to take his mind off an arduous job. A broken man after the war, he lives off the commander’s own stolen money in Berlin for a while. By the time he arrives in Israel, looking for his daughter, he is quite insane.
At an asylum in the Negev Desert populated solely by Holocaust survivors, he still is the main attraction, drawing cheers from fellow inmates, making love to a beautiful nurse (Ayelet Zurer) and most definitely the pet project of its head doctor (Derek Jacobi). Hard to say what impresses everyone more — his comic temperament or his shattered psyche.
Do the doctors and nurses need a destroyed Adam to justify not only their work but also the very existence of the Zionist state? Do the inmates sense a kindred though more flamboyant spirit in Adam? Is he their messiah?
Against the institution’s stated mandate, the head doctor brings in a boy raised on a chain who believes he is a dog. (Romanian newcomer Tudor Rapiteanu is a striking presence in the role.) What shatters Adam about the dog-boy’s abrupt appearance stems from his past: The Nazi commandant demanded that Adam stay on all fours, play with his Jew-hating German Shepherd and even eat from a bowl for several years in his office to save his life. So a man treated as a dog meets a youth convinced he is a dog.
Only a fellow canine can reach the dog-boy, who gradually emerges from his isolation cell into the desert yard to confront his humanity. Thus does Adam find a kind of redemption for his sin of survival.
Israeli-born screenwriter Noah Stollman adapted Kaniuk’s stream-of-consciousness into a cinematic three-ring circus. The emphasis here, as it was with Phillipe de Broca’s “King of Hearts,” is more on comedy and entertainment than on truly disturbing psychoses. The institution stranded in the desert should be a devastating modern version of hell. But Stollman and Schrader pump for edgy comedy and in scenes between Goldblum and Zurer a mildly sadomasochistic eroticism.
Gabriel Yared’s jazzy, impressionistic music nicely underscores the constant movement of patients and doctors within the institution. Designer Alexander Manasse’s massive set of the institute’s interior, built on a Bucharest soundstage, provides all the risers and levels, all the expansive rooms and tiny hiding places where the story might wander as it pleases.
There will never be a final word on the Holocaust in books or in moves, but “Adam Resurrected” opens a new and exciting window into the world of survivors who refuse to throw off their chains.