Adam Resurrected (2008, Director: Paul Schrader): Let me begin by saying I have a lot of respect for the work of Paul Schrader. Anyone who has been both a screenwriter and a critic before becoming a director is bound to have my respect. Which is why I felt so miserable leaving the screening last night. Adam Resurrected is an out-and-out stinker, and I’m sorry to say it.
To be completely honest, I was a bit nervous going in. Films that try to see the comedy (black or otherwise) in the Holocaust have rarely fared well. Jerry Lewis shelved his film The Day The Clown Cried (1972) after critical outrage, and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), despite a rapturous reception here at TIFF (one I witnessed in person) fell out of favour pretty quickly as well. Schrader’s film differs in that he presents the “clown” character, Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum) as insane. When we meet him, it’s 1961 and he’s being escorted back (after an unsuccessful discharge) to a “progressive” asylum in the Israeli desert specifically for survivors of the camps. He’s clearly the star patient, entertaining the other patients and even the staff with his quick wit, and carrying on a love affair with a gorgeous nurse. The head doctor (Derek Jacobi) indulges him endlessly.
Through flashbacks, we discover that he lost his wife and daughters in a concentration camp while he himself was spared. The camp commandant (Willem Defoe) recognizes him from his nightclub act and decides to keep him as his pet. And I mean this quite literally. He forces Adam to act as his dog, barking and walking around on all fours. Since he’s also a talented musician, he’s also used to soothe the inmates with violin music on their way to the gas chambers.
The plot becomes even more bizarre when a boy shows up at the asylum thinking he’s a dog. Adam gradually reaches out to him, based on his own memories, and brings both the boy and himself back to life (hence the portentous title). That’s the psychological resurrection, anyway. Physically, Adam appears to be invulnerable. He seems to be able to bleed at will, and to heal himself of tumours. It’s no wonder that one of the inmates considers him the Messiah.
The film is based on a famous and rather controversial Israeli novel by Yoram Kaniuk, published in 1971. Significantly, Schrader said the book came out in the same general era as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), two other challenges to the typical depiction of wartime experiences. Famously, both of those novels were called unfilmable, and the films made from them have never really been considered successful.
Goldblum, as always, jumps in with both feet, but his strange accent and tendency to mutter left much of his dialogue indecipherable. Defoe and Jacobi are just wasted in paper-thin roles, and the film is further marred by an abundance of shaky handheld camerawork. In the end, I just didn’t care about this strange character, and I found myself rolling my eyes more than once at the hamfisted metaphors.
Here is the Q&A with director Paul Schrader, actor Jeff Goldblum, screenwriter Noah Stollman and producer Ehud Bleiberg from after the screening: