Thursday, October 01, 2009

Adam Resurrected: Grade A

Adam Resurrected (2008)
Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Ayelet Zurer; Director Paul Schrader.

Is it better to accept an unjust death with dignity or at least defiance, or would you completely humiliate yourself to purchase continued life? That is the dilemma faced by Adam (Goldblum), a Jew from Berlin during World War II. The psychopathic Nazi commandant (Dafoe) allows Adam to survive and maybe his wife and daughter too, if he agrees to live like a dog, literally, on all fours, barking, eating from the floor, sleeping outside in the cage with the dogs. A more abject degradation can hardly be imagined. It is a compact metaphor for the subhuman status of the concentration camp inmates, without cataloging yet again the individual horrors they suffered.

Prior to the war, Adam was a famous vaudevillian and stage magician, and even in captivity he can force a funny face or play a tune on the violin to amuse the commandant. After the war, in Tel Aviv, he is a patient in a psychiatric institute for holocaust survivors. He uses sharp wit, clever remarks, practical jokes, and alcohol to avoid engagement with his therapist and as defense against his mental dislocation. The movie effectively intercuts his postwar struggle with his wartime experiences (in black and white), to tell this psychological story.

Goldblum’s acting is phenomenal, way beyond his usual mad scientist role. Photography is excellent, especially the sepia-toned scenes. The rich story raises questions about life, fate, God, grief and loss, human nature, and the accidents of history. When I was young there were lots of Holocaust survivors about but I was only dimly aware of them and had little feeling for their experience. Now they are virtually all gone and the Holocaust story is becoming social mythology and historical symbology. This movie reconnects us with a personal story.

On the down side, the start is slow, and directing is crude and obvious throughout, pitched for melodrama rather than drama. Adam swans about the hospital cracking jokes, spouting Yiddish phrases; making lame allusions to the Nazis. It is a poor introduction to the character, not amusing or believable. Other patients and the hospital staff are two-dimensional. Ridiculous German accents persist, but we overcome all that and finally connect with Adam. The implausible introduction of a feral child adds symbolic interest to the story but comes out of left field. The recurring element of magical realism is distracting. Though the directing is big and heavy, there are some moving moments. Despite these flaws, the multi-layered story and great performance by Goldblum make the movie worth seeing.

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