Adam Resurrected: Schrader’s Misfire in Adapting Kaniuk’s Seminal Israeli Novel

Though based on a highly personal tale, some elements of Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected” will be familiar to American audiences, because they resemble that classic of modern literature, Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,”  Milos Forman made that book into an Oscar winning picture in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson.

 

Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk’s 1968 seminal novel centers on the arrival of an unusual, energizing presence at a psychiatric hospital. The protagonist, Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum), a fast-talking, charismatic man with a hearty appetite for women and drink, has similar effect on his fellow patients as Randle Patrick McMurphy, the anti-hero that Jack Nicholson played in the film version of Kesey’s 1960s tale, instilling confidence and hope, and stressing the importance of laughter.

 

The two men share some characteristics in common.  Both are emotionally unstable, possessing violent streaks just beneath the surface that reflect the severe psychological traumas in their respective pasts.  However, it’s the nature of those traumas–and their depictions–that distinguishes the two stories and their protagonists: McMurphy escaped from a Chinese POW camp during the Korean War; Stein survived slavery at a Nazi concentration camp. And while McMurphy’s wartime experiences are represented hazily, occupying the forefront in neither the book nor Forman’s film, the horrors of Stein’s past are always present in “Adam Resurrected.”

 

The narrative begins in 1961 as Stein, following an aggressive outburst in which he choked his landlady, returns to the Seizling Institute for Therapy and Rehab, a fictional facility in the Negev desert in southern Israel that specializes in the “treatment” of Holocaust survivors.

 

Between scenes of him clowning with the other patients (familiar caricatures of the mentally ill) and titillating his fiery, attractive, and compassionate nurse (Ayelet Zurer in a performance that commands attention), his past is revealed through a series of flashbacks, some of which quite haunting.

 

A couple of lively sequences establish Stein as a popular entertainer who worked in burlesque shows and cabarets in Berlin throughout the 1920s and 1930s until his Jewish heritage marked him for internment.  The transitions from present to past might best be described as clunky.  For example, upon seeing a model train set at the hospital, Stein’s eyes open wide with terror, and suddenly the film cuts to a shot of him and his family standing huddled aboard a locomotive to the Nazi camp, in black and white, no less.

 

At the concentration camp, we watch as Stein is made to grovel at the feet literally of Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe as evil incarnate), who forbids Stein to speak, instead training him to crawl on all fours around his office and emulate the sounds and mannerisms of a domesticated dog.  His job, says Klein, remains the same one he had on stage: “to comfort and entertain.” After the war, Stein is racked with guilt for having survived, albeit on a subhuman level, while his wife and daughter were dispatched to mass graves.

 

Back in the present, the Seizling Institute is run by Dr. Nathan Gross (British actor Derek Jacobi), who is stuffy and irritable but smart enough to overlook Stein’s reckless sex and drinking habits, because he knows that Stein can help his patients.  Gross has marked one case in particular for Stein’s healing touch, a severely abused boy who has been raised to behave like a dog, barking, crawling, and rabid.  The crux of the text lies in the varied interactions between Stein and this frightened, debased child.


Goldblum, an intelligent and alert actor, gives himself entirely to the role, spanning the gamut of emotions as a man that’s playful, impulsive, inspiring, damaged.  He deserves credit for carrying the brunt of the workload and giving some coherence to a story and character that lack focus.  As if Adam Stein wasn’t already complex enough to carry a film, he also reads minds, and bleeds suddenly from his feet, among other places.  These traits are mentioned in passing, because that’s how the film treats them; breezed over, they function almost entirely as abstract, religious symbols.

 

The picture stumbles the most in its treatment of the troubled relationship between Stein and the boy, who most of the time is covered with a white sheet and stays hidden under the bed.  Here, again, Goldblum’s effort is valiant, but the child is not so much a character as an idea, a symbol.   He embodies what Stein once was, a human being in a state of degradation that, when reached, can never be forgotten, no matter how hard one tries.  Their shifting relationship embodies some of the film’s core if familiar ideas, such as the notion that empathy is crucial to therapy, or that the healing process is a struggle for both the doctor and the patient.

 

But it’s frustrating that when the film ends, for all his time on screen, we’re left with no clue as to who this boy is, or was.  Randle McMurphy, too, inspired a mute to speak, but Chief Bromden was an individual in his own right.

 

An ambitious, tough film to watch, “Adam Resurrected” features a couple of genuinely humorous scenes, courtesy of Goldblum, and a wealth of important messages, the most resonant being an obvious one that’s still worth repeating, that the suffering of the Holocaust lasted long after the defeat of Hitler and the Nazi party and that complete recovery is both impossible and improbable.

 

Nevertheless, ultimately, “Adam Resurrected” bites off more than it can chew. This is especially apparent in the film’s climax, if one can call it that, which arrives suddenly and fails to wrap the themes and subplots up.  This might have been fine, except that the ending purports a degree of tidiness that is unearned.

 

It’s difficult to justify the endurance of the basest humiliations of both grown men and children on screen in a film that’s so sharply uneven and whose effectiveness is so intermittent.

 

By Brendan Twist