Dir. Paul Schrader. Germany/USA/Israel. 2008. 106 mins.
The drama will play widely on the festival circuit before a theatrical run. In the US, the film should rally Jewish audiences and fans of Jeff Goldblum, in the lead role of an entertainer who survives by playing a dog for a Nazi. As a German co-production, interest in Germany could be strong. The adaptation of Kaniuk’s 1968 classic should give the picture a firm berth in home video and revive interest in the original book.
The films begins as medical attendants escort Holocaust survivor Adam Stein out of a Tel Aviv boarding house where he tried to kill a woman. They bring him to a Bauhaus-style rehabilitation center for survivors in the Israeli desert with modern art on the walls, endowed by an American philanthropist and run by a Dr. Gross (Derek Jacobi). The asylum is full of survivors with endearing quirks, but the story flashes back to Berlin, where Stein’s popular cabaret clown act is shut down by the Nazis and his family is sent to a concentration camp, where he is separated from them.
Camp commander Klein (Willem Dafoe), the butt of a cabaret joke years before, has a special job for Stein, whom he forces to walk on all fours and live as a dog, which enabled the humiliated clown to survive. Back in the asylum the affable and amorous Stein discovers young David (Tudor Rapiteanu), who barks and lives in filth. His mission is to save the dog/boy, while haunted by his days in the camp and the loss of his family.
The Holocaust is a new subject for director Paul Schrader, a Calvinist from Michigan, who infuses drama and physical comedy into Yoram Kaniuk’s matter-of-fact tone in the novel. Yet the subject is not entirely foreign. As with the protagonists of Taxi Driver and Affliction, Adam Stein is consumed by grueling inner turmoil - in this case, by the guilt of a survivor whose family perished. Shrader navigates this emotional territory effectively.
The script by Noah Stollman (preceded by decades of unmade scenarios for the story) distills a complicated novel, preserving the dark humor while considering the darker ordeal that has driven these survivors insane.
The story of a clown who survived by playing a dog to entertain a camp commander gets the odd laugh, especially in flashbacks and in Stein’s romps with sexy nurse Grey (Ayelet Zurer). Yet comic moments never fall into the facile blandness of Roberto Benigni’s motivational Life Is Beautiful.
As Stein, Goldblum has echoes of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with some generic movie insanity from the supporting cast. Yet his performance expands as the film tells its story, with surprisingly few false notes, given the character’s complexity. This role will bring the versatile actor new job offers, even from those who aren’t won over by Adam Resurrected.
Dafoe, who played a Jewish boxer in Auschwitz in Triumph of the Spirit, brings a nasty sadism to his character, who rules over a camp created for the production in Rumania. The film’s credible look - Rumania as Germany and Israel - is the work of production designer Alexander Manasse.
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Marion Forster Bleiberg
based on the novel by Yoram Kaniuk