“Everyone likes the circus”
Paul Schrader’s film Adam Resurrected truly caught me off guard at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. I literally had no clue for what was in store, no knowledge of the plot or anything. The credits unveil Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe, two character actor stalwarts, making me think that this thing could be interesting. And then came the disturbing yet stunning close-up of Goldblum’s eyes, both staring straight at the audience. With voice-over narration, his left eye goes sideways while the right stays static. I don’t know if this was a camera trick or something he can actually do, but either way it hooked me. This man rises from bed, nicely dressed in a suit, as a woman comes in with breakfast. She soon apologizes to her boss once two other men walk up the stairs, ready to take Adam Stein away, back to the mental hospital from which he was discharged—a Israeli sanctuary for Holocaust survivors to live and interact, unable to assimilate back into society. We never really get the full story as to what Goldblum’s Stein did to warrant his return—an attempted murder is alluded to—but it is an auspicious one as we soon see how important this man was to all those staying there, patients and doctors alike.
It all begins rather straight-forwardly. Stein was a clown and stage performer in Berlin, a man without politics, working with his wife and children to bring joy to those who attended his shows. Through flashbacks we see how his audience slowly becomes more and more Nazi, going from one stray soldier with swastika to a barroom full of military. He is eventually told he can no longer perform and, being Jewish, it is only a matter of time before he and his kin are placed on a train out of the ghetto and into a camp. Back in the present, however, his affable nature and overabundance of intelligence show a seemingly well-adjusted man, one the patients relate to, the doctors rely on to bridge the gap between them and the survivors, and who has seduced the head nurse, a woman half his age, into an affair that the head doctor knows about and turns the other way. You see Dr. Nathan Gross (Derek Jacobi) feels he can help Stein, knowing that there is something buried deep down inside him, a guilt we can only assume stems from the fact that his family is nowhere to be seen. It appears he has survived while the rest disappeared. Only by giving him some freedom and trust can he begin to try and help.
What follows is a somewhat One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest scenario, only flipped on its head. Rather than have McMurphy rioting against the establishment, causing trouble, Stein acts as though he is a doctor, brought in of his own recognizance, there to help. Some doctors feel this is a bad idea, but it is not up to them. Stein uses his charm and charisma, that which made him such a success on the stage in Germany, to become the favorite of all—laughing with the patients, not at them; engaging in his love affair with Ayelet Zurer’s Nurse Grey; partaking in his secret stash of alcohol hidden away in every vent around the building; and just making the most of his stay, as though it’s all a vacation. That is until one morning when he hears a distant barking. Discovering there is a dog in the hospital—something he was promised from day one would never occur—he begins to seek it out. Finally stumbling across the room with the animal, he gets down on all fours and turns into a canine himself. Barking, drooling, lashing out at the staff, Stein is not as put together as we had once thought.
This all now leads to the true nature of the film. I believe it is the most original tale of WWII and the Holocaust that I have seen. While most these days focus on the camps and the battles and how much they affect those involved at the present, Adam Resurrected shows us the long-lasting ramifications being treated as an inferior, as an animal, that the experience had. The film is all about the psychological scarring the war left on these survivors, from the abuse, the torture, the separation from loved ones, and even the fact that they are alive while so many are not. One may call Adam Stein a lucky man for the series of events that transpired to him. Lucky that he was seen by a man for whom he read the mind of during one of his acts in Germany, a Commandant played by Dafoe who took Stein under his wing to make him laugh and forget about the horrible things he was doing; lucky that all he had to do was pretend to be a dog, doing tricks for his master while all the other Jews worked outside biding their time until death. Only when you see the toying that went on, Stein desperately attempting to save his family, doing everything he is asked for by this man he saved from committing suicide not long ago, do you see how much easier it would have been if he had just been killed.
Goldblum’s Stein is a tour de force, a performance he spent a year researching and preparing for. This broken man has all his armor stripped away by the barking of some thing hidden under a sheet in a room. It is either a dog or maybe someone like him, someone degraded so much that he has become an animal in appearance as well as in spirit. Goldblum plays the magician to perfection, his quirkiness lending itself to the clownish way he goes about his life, but portrays the tortured soul to great effect too; a man able to control his own body, making it bleed, making it get sick, destroying himself over and over again as he does his best to help those around him, not yet in a healthy enough state to help himself. Utterly believable and completely transformed in his character, Adam Stein is whom we see onscreen. A Holocaust survivor only starting to overcome the pain and sorrow inflicted upon him during the war and after, a man coming to grips with the fact that his name is not Stein but the number burned into his arm.
I credit Schrader for directing a stellar film, allowing Goldblum to really perform his heart out for the duration, a time span for which he is in frame almost 100% of the time. The attention to detail is impeccable, right down to the toy train at the hospital, a locomotive that gets under Stein’s skin, perhaps a little too much until we are shown the flashback to the train that transported the Jews, both exact replicas of each other, making that toy a symbol of his incarceration. Even a moment reminiscent to one in Schrader’s earlier Hollywood script, The Last Temptation of Christ, with a burning tree and a revelatory encounter in the desert with his demons works despite walking a thin line towards going too far. Adam Resurrected is truly a story of his journey to find salvation, for himself and those around him. A great line comes from a response to one man’s quest for God as follows, “God is out to lunch. He left a note; it’s on your arm.” Maybe God abandoned them all as he sat back and watched the atrocities occur, but these people, the doctors, patients, and Stein especially, won’t give themselves that luxury. They are there for the long run, doing their best to survive and cope with the fact that they still have the gift of life, hopefully with enough time to make something of it.
Adam Resurrected 8/10 | ★ ★ ★
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival