Adam Resurrected, adapted by Noah
Stollum Stollman from the book of the same name by Yoram Kaniuk and directed by Paul Schrader, is a darkly abstract and haunting film featuring Jeff Goldblum in his finest, most layered performance ever. Goldblum portrays Adam Steiner, a tragic clown shattered by the horrors of the Holocaust. A clown and ringleader of his own highly successful circus act in pre-War Berlin, Adam finds himself, his wife, and their two young daughters caught in the roundup of Jews. Ironically, his audience was once full of soldiers in Nazi uniforms; now the very people Adam spent his life making happy are just as happy to see him and his family exterminated.
Adam in the present is a prisoner of his memories of those terrible years, and now resident ringleader of a fictional asylum for Holocaust survivors in the Israeli desert. He's a man with a fractured soul, and as a result of his unrelenting anguish and guilt, he astounds the doctors in charge of the asylum by the ability of his mind to make his body bleed and even grow malignant tumors as he repeatedly dies and is reborn.
Among the worst of the memories that haunt Adam is the time he spent in the concentration camp under the thumb of Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe, in a great performance), whose life Adam once saved when he read Klein's mind at a circus performance and foresaw -- and prevented -- the man from committing suicide. Perhaps because he's paradoxically both grateful that Adam once saved his life and repulsed with himself for feeling gratitude toward a Jew, Klein forces Adam, who as a performer had a remarkable gift for working with animals, to become his "pet" for his own amusement.
Adam, in the desperate hope that if he pleases the Commandant his wife and daughters will be spared, lives in a pen with Klein's German Shepard and grovels obediently on all fours with a dog chain around his neck. To further degrade and humiliate Adam, Klein obtains for him a violin, which he forces him to play to entertain his fellow prisoners as they are marched to their deaths.
Stylistically, Adam Resurrected reminds me greatly of Schrader's film Mishima, which I had the privilege of seeing for the first time on a big screen at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival earlier this year; both films are highly abstract and filled with symbolism, leap back and forth in time, and make brilliant use of color, light and shadow to set the tone of particular scenes. Also like Mishima, which tells the story of the tragic Japanese playwright and poet Yukio Mishima largely through metaphor and imagery, Adam Resurrected relies heavily on those literary techniques to evoke a frenetic and deeply unsettling mood as Schrader unfolds this evocative tale of evil, insanity and inhumanity as seen through the eyes of a clown, a non-political entertainer caught up in political and social horror.
Adam Resurrected isn't a conventional film about the Holocaust; rather, it's a complex tale about the shattering effect on the human psyche when a man is faced with moral wrongs that defy understanding, and the fire of guilt that Adam, as a survivor, must walk through it he's ever to be whole again. What's most remarkable about the film, though, is that all of it is symbolism and metaphor wrapped in the trappings of an tale that interweaves dark comedy and darkest tragedy to explore human nature on a deeply philosophical level.
Schrader, who was raised a Calvinist, has brought a dark and moralistic outlook to most of the scripts he's written (and particularly the films he's directed), and there's something so deeply raw and visceral about this film that I haven't been able to get it out of my mind since I saw it. Schrader brilliantly evokes both the darkest corners of man's soul and the redemptive power of a man to heal himself through the deft use of metaphor, abstraction as a means to explore philosophical questions, and startling visual imagery; the result is like nothing you've ever seen before or likely will again.
Goldblum's performance as Adam is complex and engrossing to watch, and while I can't begin to fathom what it must have taken out of him to get inside this story and character to pull the performance off at this level, it's truly a wonder to behold onscreen. The Oscar buzz circulating Goldblum's turn in this film is far from hype; he educes the death and rebirth of a man's soul in such a way that I'd be hard pressed to compare it to anything I've ever seen onscreen. Adam Resurrected is hardly one of Schrader or Goldblum's more mainstream-accessible films, but for those who have the courage and patience to go down the rabbit hole with them, this is art and poetry at its highest level, a truly astonishing achievement.
Adam Resurrected plays at the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts tomorrow.