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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Adam Resurrected, which opened throughout Israel on Thursday, is not just another Holocaust movie, and the main reason is that Paul Schrader directed it.
Schrader isn't the first person you would think of to direct a film about a Holocaust survivor, and he is well aware of that fact.
"Like every intelligent person my age, I was aware of the historical event [the Holocaust]. But there are lots of Holocaust movies, and I didn't think that the world needed another," he said during an interview at the Haifa International Film Festival this past fall.
But once Schrader read the script, he was drawn into a story that he describes as "about a man that was once a dog who meets a dog who was once a boy."
As that summary indicates, unlike most films that deal with the Jewish experience during and after World War II, Adam Resurrected has a surreal story line. Based on a controversial novel by Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk (the Hebrew title is Adam Ben Kelev), the film tells the story of Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum), a cabaret entertainer in Berlin before the war. Adam can't save his family from the Nazis, but keeps himself alive by imitating a dog, which delights the commander (Willem Dafoe) of the concentration camp where he has been imprisoned. Years later, housed in an Israeli mental institution, Adam reconnects with the pain of the loss of his family and his own humiliation by bonding with an abused boy who acts like a dog.
It's hard to imagine that this Hebrew novel, written in a style that could be called magic realism, would end up as an American movie with a well-known leading man. But when Schrader came across Noah Stollman's screenplay of the novel, he was hooked.
"It's an extraordinary book," says Schrader. "If in the movie we've captured half of what was in the book, we've done an incredible job."
His regard for Kaniuk and the novel is so high that he describes the conversation in which the author told Schrader he loved the film as "one of the happiest moments of my life."
Viewed in the context of Schrader's career, it isn't so surprising that he was drawn to make Adam Resurrected. Schrader is one of those chosen few who can honestly claim to be a legend in his own time. As a young, aspiring screenwriter, he penned the script for Taxi Driver, which Martin Scorsese directed and made into a classic, one of the greatest films of the '70s. This dark study of an alienated loner whose pain leads him to violence changed the face of American movies. Schrader wrote two other screenplays for Scorsese, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, but also began directing his own films. His varied resumÃ© includes such titles as Affliction, Hardcore, Patty Hearst and Mishima. If there is a theme that runs through his work, it is the darkness at the core of humanity, that often erupts into violence.
But Schrader is a bit weary of all that film-school appreciation of his work, saying, "At the time, you think you're just doing them because they're fresh, then you look back years later and see the connections."
He'd rather talk about Adam Resurrected.
"The main problem with the movie is that it violates the kind of rules people associate with Holocaust films. Most Holocaust films are based on historical fact and are very reverential. This is irreverent, and there never was a hospital like this," he says, referring to the chaotic institution portrayed in the film. There, the debonair Goldblum, dressed in a white suit, has the run of the place as he demonstrates all kinds of special powers such as bleeding at will, seduces the outwardly cold head nurse (Ayelet Zurer), advises the head doctor (Derek Jacobi) and provides therapy and direction for the other patients, including another survivor played by Hanna Laszlo.
Acknowledging the film's mixture of humor, fantasy and surrealism, Schrader cites such literary adaptations as The Tin Drum and Catch-22 as influences.
"Masterworks are difficult to adapt," he says. Still, he was drawn to the book not only in spite of the difficulties, but because of them.
"I've changed my style over the years. I get bored pretty easily, and I was getting tired of the 'well-made film,' as lots of filmmakers have," he says, explaining his decision to limit the color palette in Adam, as well as using, at times, a shaky, quasi-documentary-style camera, and cinematography and set design that lean towards surrealism.
But those who are familiar with his early work and are expecting a bloodbath here, especially in the concentration camp scenes, may be in for a surprise: The horrors are suggested rather than shown.
"I got out of the violence racket about 20 years ago," he says. "Violence is a young man's game. I've killed very few people in the last few years."
Whether or not his films are violent, Schrader is unquestionably one of the most complex figures in American movie-making. Unlike most directors, who spent every free moment of their childhoods watching movies, Schrader didn't see a film until he was 18. That's because he grew up in a strict Calvinist sect in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"There was chapel every morning," he recalls. "They were big into missions. That was the world I knew. Our church at that time prohibited what they called 'the worldly amusements' - drinking, dancing, card-playing and, of course, movies. But when you don't know anyone who is going to movies, you don't mind."
Schrader, along with his late brother and occasional collaborator, Leonard, attended a Calvinist college, then moved to New York. There, "I fell in love with the European cinema of the '60s, which was a great thing to fall in love with."
He mentions Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, a harrowing depiction of the world of a mentally ill woman, as a film that influenced him in making Adam Resurrected. As he delved into European movies, he became a film historian and the protÃ©gÃ© of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, and then began writing screenplays.
Adam Resurrected is one of just a handful of movies he has made with a screenplay written by someone else. Schrader moved into directing, he says, because as a screenwriter, "I really wasn't in control of my creative life." But directing carries with it added pressures: "Nothing is more humbling than when you realize you are the director who f***ed up your script."
Although Adam Resurrected has drawn mixed reviews in the US, almost all the critics have singled out leading man Goldblum for praise.
"Jeff rose to the considerable challenge," says Schrader. "He's got that necessary hambone quality for this part. He's a natural entertainer."
Goldblum took the role very seriously, though. "I never worked with an actor as diligent and as prepared as Jeff... He had memorized the script one year in advance. He gives the performance of a lifetime. I had to rein him in. He was becoming lost in his research and second-guessing everything. In Telluride [at the film festival there], he was sitting in the limo, rethinking how he should have done it, how he should have played every scene. Finally, I had to say, 'Jeff, just shut up.'"
Schrader was also impressed with Zurer, the Tel Aviv-born actress who is now starring opposite Tom Hanks in Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code.
"Her character was so hard," says Schrader. "But Ayelet's abilities as an actress are so soft and warm."
Schrader initially approached Kenneth Branagh to play the concentration camp commandant (the part that ultimately went to Dafoe), but Branagh, who had just signed on to play in the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie, told him, "You only get to play one Nazi."
Even before the runaway success of the Anglo-Indian film Slumdog Millionaire, Schrader was thinking of making a variation on a Bollywood film.
"I have an idea for a film about an American pulled into the Mumbai crime world. It would be in split languages, with an international thriller version and a Bollywood song-and-dance version," he says.
Schrader in Mumbai? Bollywood production numbers directed by a former Calvinist? If Schrader pulls it off, it'll be something to see.