Difficult subjects cause aversion to “Adam Resurrected”

By: Michael Nassberg

Holocaust films are never meant to be easy to watch. They illustrate graphic brutality and often fruitless struggle. They dispense an ineluctable warning about mankind’s limitless capacity for inhumanity. The few victories found are celebrated with constant reminders of the tragedy from which they sprung. In fulfilling these obligations, Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected” succeeds – the sorrow, horror and rage are present. However, the movie’s melodramatic examination of degradation will make viewers uncomfortable in the wrong way.
Perhaps it is because the title role of Adam Stein is played by Jeff Goldblum. Seeing an actor better suited to playing comical chaoticians (“Jurassic Park”) and alien-outsmarting cable technicians (“Independence Day”) humiliated into barking like a dog for survival is unappealing. That is the fate of Stein, whose strange, unhappy past is unfurled through flashbacks interspersed throughout his titular “resurrection” in the present. Although he is spared a certain death, the means by which he survives are often sickening: Striving for a chance of saving his family and himself, Stein serves Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe), a lonely man desiring comfort from someone more than a pet, but less than a friend. Seeing Stein crawl on all fours, bark and pant, howl when locked in a cage and so on, a viewer wonders why Stein is so subservient. Is he not left to his own devices well enough to formulate an escape? Does he really believe Klein will save his family if he tolerates the abuse?
The picture juxtaposes the year 1961, when Stein resides in a fictional Israeli mental health institution meant for Holocaust survivors, with his past as a Berlin circus operator and masterful performer, circa 1926-36. His antics (magic tricks, knife throwing, etc.) bring some levity to Goldblum’s role, as does the character’s later capers as a patient with a propensity for running the asylum. His “resurrection” comes in the form of counseling a patient with psychological damage similar to and deeper than his own.
The half of the picture that takes place in the asylum is more bearable to watch, but still problematic. Much of the film suffers from gaps in its verisimilitude. The reason for his committal is mostly unclear and the relative tolerance toward his disruptive actions feels unrealistic. Particularly glaring – and possibly unnecessary to the story – is Stein’s heated relationship with Nurse Grey (Ayelet Zurer, “Munich”). The mysteries of how she manages to keep her job and what attracts her to Stein are minor matters. In a few scenes, Grey allows herself to be debased, culminating in scenes in which she acts like a dog for Stein, and strangely, he seems to enjoy this. Is this role reversal a believable response to his trauma?
Refreshingly, Commandant Klein is better than a static, garden-variety Nazi villain, but the character still lacks appropriate definition. He is cruel, but apologetic; demanding, but forgiving. He is vile, but at times sympathetic. These qualities, however, make Klein more enigmatic than dynamic: of particular concern is the question of why he wishes to subjugate Stein in this manner? Perhaps a man in Klein’s position cannot befriend a Jew, but what aspect of his psyche desires a human to serve in such a subordinate role? This is a problem which could have been addressed by delving into his origins and internal psychology, especially considering that Klein does not display a demonstrably potent animosity toward Stein or the Jews. While Dafoe represents a deft casting choice for Klein, the role fails to fully utilize his talents.
To call “Adam Resurrected” a crossing of “One Flies Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Pianist” is unfair in that the former doesn’t live up to either of those films. Goldblum and Dafoe’s performances deserve credit, as do the ideas the film explores, but the sum of its flaws is not insignificant. Paramount of them, however, is the visceral repellence of the way Stein’s obeisance to Klein is portrayed. The film could have suffered during its adaptation from the Yoram Kaniuk novel, but the material itself is not to blame. A Holocaust picture should be affecting, even disturbing, but “Adam Resurrected” is better described as alienating and it is unlikely that this was the film’s intention.