Thursday, December 03, 2009

IFF ’09: Adam Resurrected

It was a case of bad timing. When Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected was released last year, it was one of a number of Holocaust related films jostling for critical and award attention. Unfortunately, Adam was largely lost in the shuffle, but it might have been the best of the field. Though not graphically violent, it contained powerfully disturbing images of human cruelty that gnawed on one’s consciousness well after the initial viewing. Now the Israel Film Festival’s upcoming screening of Adam Resurrected (trailer here) offers an opportunity to rediscover and reevaluate the film, as part of its tribute to Schrader, who will be awarded the 2009 IFF Achievement in Cinema Award on opening night.

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 troubling, depicting man’s inhumanity to his fellow man 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 The 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 is a welcomed presence, exuding learned 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 by Yoram Kaniuk. This was probably a wise decision. While Resurrected is often uncomfortable to watch, it is always for the right reasons. It is a challenging, stylistically distinct film that deserved a better theatrical reception than what it received almost exactly one year ago. It screens Sunday (12/6) and next Saturday (12/12) at the SVA Theater.