"Adam Resurrected": Of Dogs and Men By Yaev Shuv

in 24th Haifa International Film Festival

by Yael Shuv

After being screened at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Yoram Kaniuk’s novel Adam Resurrected had its Israeli premiere at the Haifa International Film Festival to a decidedly mixed response. It was just one of an onslaught of Israeli productions and (mostly) co-productions dealing with the Holocaust and memories of the Holocaust screened at the festival, among them Uri Barbash’s Spring 1941 starring Joseph Fiennes, Lina and Slava Chaplin’s Burning Mooki and Amos Gitai’s One Day You’ll Understand (Plus tard), starring Jeanne Moreau.

Israeli cinema, unlike Israeli literature and theater, has mostly avoided dealing with the Holocaust, and this long overdue interest in the subject will surely be a topic for academic research. Part of the answer would probably be the growing number of co-productions with European countries which open possibilities for shooting abroad on bigger budgets and making English-speaking films. Hebrew — the ancient language that was resurrected in the land of Israel to symbolize the new society’s choice to detach itself from the Jewish Diaspora that “went like sheep to the slaughter” — was not the language of the Holocaust. And this is why Adam Resurrected, produced by Ehud Bleiberg (The Band’s Visit) and Werner Wirsing, and shot in Israel and Romania, is filled with English-speaking Israeli actors in supporting roles.

Following the book, which came out in 1968, the film (with a screenplay by Noah Stollman) tells the story of Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum) a resident at a mental institute for Holocaust survivors set in a surreal location in the Israeli desert in 1961. Stein is the star patient and a special favorite of doctor Nathan Gross (Sir Derek Jacobi, warm and wonderful in too small a role) because of his sharp intelligence and obsessive need to entertain while self destructing — he can make himself shed blood. Flashbacks to Berlin before the war reveal that he was once the most popular entertainer in Germany, as a cabaret impresario, circus owner, magician, musician and knife thrower (using his daughter as target). However, that did not save him and his family from being sent to a concentration camp. There he was recognized by Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe) who offered him a devil’s pact — his life in return for entertainment. Stein became Klein’s “dog”, spending the duration of the war on his knees. Back at the asylum, Stein, who has a torrid affair with the head nurse (Ayelet Zurer), learns of a new patient with whom the doctors haven’t had any success — a “boy-dog” who was raised, tied to a chain, in a basement. The two recognize each other as dogs, and a unique relationship grows between the deeply troubled souls.

This is a very difficult story to tell, in any medium. A play based on the book — had a very long and successful run in Israel and abroad — took the theatricality of the images to the extreme and imagined the whole thing as a circus act, presented in a tent. Schrader, never known to shy away from risky subjects, opted for a much more direct approach — less harrowing and more moving, focusing on the frailty of human contact. It works, but only intermittently. Schrader said, in a meeting with the festival audience, that he watched Schindler’s List and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest as points of reference, and chose to shoot the concentration camp scenes in glowing black and white. It was a poor choice, because it makes the flashbacks look somewhat artificial, as if they were cut from the Spielberg film, and thus the different parts of the film don’t create a seamless whole.

Goldblum’s performance in the very challenging lead role has been described as a role of a lifetime. In this writer’s opinion the performance is only partly successful — on the one hand his elegance and toned down facial gestures work well in the mental institute, on the other hand he doesn’t really convince as the great entertainer he was supposed to be. The same goes for the film’s clean style, which makes it accessible to viewers and manages to overcome the regular pitfalls of movies (mostly allegorical ones) about asylums. And yet the film lacks an emotional punch. One of the weakest points in the film is the twisted relationship between Stein and the nurse, which doesn’t gel because there doesn’t seem to be any sexual heat between Goldblum and Zurer. Other Israeli actors fare better, among them Hana Laslo (Palme d’Or winner for her performance in Gitai’s Free Zone) in a tricky role as a grotesque little old girl, one of the patients in the asylum.

As mentioned above, some of the Israeli critics thought the material too theatrical for the screen, others where moved. At the packed festival screening, Schrader got only respectful applause, but Kaniuk was received with a long, warm, partly standing ovation. This gesture of “we love you” was, one may assume, a response not only to the film but to Kaniuk’s whole career as a writer, which has not always received the appreciation it deserves. The book of Adam Resurrected was very poorly received when it first came out in Israel shortly after the 1967 war — not a friendly time for stories about people with broken souls — before it went on to garner raves when translated into other languages. The film, which is scheduled to open in Israel in January 2009, will probably give the book a second life.