Friday, December 12, 2008

Adam Resurrected

There is an enormous difference between the humorous and the outrageous. Though based on a book by Yoram Kaniuk billed as a darkly comic novel of the Holocaust, there are few laughs in Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected. Opening today in New York, Resurrected is not about finding humor in the suffering of others, but rather understanding how one form of madness could produce another.

Adam Stein is a troubled soul who has problems with authority. He is made of similar stuff as Yossarian from Catch-22 and McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He is also a Holocaust survivor, whose survival came at a tremendous emotional cost. Haunted by his experiences, Stein is a reluctant patient in the Seizling Institute, a fictional mental sanitarium in Israel specializing in the treatment of Holocaust survivors.

Before the war, Stein was an entertainer, whose act blended elements of Victor Borge with Cirque de Soleil—perfect for Weimar Germany, but not so well received under National Socialism. Though not particularly religious, it was only a matter of time before he was deported to a concentration camp. Upon his arrival, he is recognized by a former audience member, the camp commandant, who spares Stein’s life for his own twisted enjoyment, forcing him to live as his pet dog.

In a narrow sense, Resurrected is a completely bloodless film that shows none of the actual killing in the camps. However, Stein’s dehumanizing scenes with the twisted Commandant Klein are profoundly disturbing, depicting human cruelty with visceral immediacy. As wild and ruckus as Stein might act years later, his problematic behavior bears no comparison with what was done to him. Though clearly provocative, there is no doubt about the film’s moral center, unlike the often baffling Reader.

Schrader’s direction is visually unsettling, often framing scenes from odd angles, but also sensitive enough to capture the tortured humanity of his characters. As Stein, Jeff Goldblum gives a very strong performance, dialing down his trademark manic delivery just enough to connect with the pathos of his character. Willem Dafoe is appropriately cold and severe as the evil Klein, while the venerable Derek Jacobi exudes compassion as Dr. Nathan Gross, the director of Seizling (but he is not given much heavy lifting to do as an actor). Some of the richest work in Resurrected actually comes from supporting players, like Joachim Krol and Idan Alterman, who play fellow patients in Seizling that suffered similar losses but lack the consolation of Stein’s flamboyant rebellion.

It seems Schrader de-emphasized the black comedy of the film’s original source novel. This was probably a wise decision. Although Resurrected is often uncomfortable to watch, it is always for the right reasons. While the film does not always work (as in the case of Stein’s relationship with a pretty young nurse, which defies credibility), it is darkly compelling throughout. Of the many Holocaust related films releasing this season, Resurrected takes the most risks, which it largely pulls off. It is also by far the most stylistically distinct film of the field. It opens today in New York at the Quad.