It’s the story of the man who used to be a dog meeting a dog who used to be a boy. And it’s set in a mental institution built in the middle of the Israeli desert of Negev. All the patients here are survivors of the Holocaust. Their psychoses vary: Some manifest harmlessly, others a little more disturbed. When it comes to Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum), it’s a bit of both. He’s charming, treating the sanatorium as his personal facility where he advises patients and conducts his studies. He also hides bottles of alcohol everywhere for a nip and engages in a sexual relationship with one of the nurses, Gina (Ayelet Zurer). Not that Dr. Nathan Gross (Derek Jacobi) seems to mind. He and the other doctors have decided to allow the patients to express themselves any way they want, just so long as it gets them to wherever they need to go.
As you might suspect from that quick synopsis, Adam Resurrected—now available on Blu-ray from MVD Visual Entertainment—is unlike most works addressing the psychological aftermath of the Holocaust. That’s because Adam Resurrected is a work of fiction, a book written by Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk and published in 1971. Kaniuk set his story in 1961, near the then-fictitious town of Arad. As Kaniuk recounted years later, he was driving when he came upon a sign in the middle of nowhere: “On this spot will be built the town of Arad.” Perfect, Kaniuk thought, what better place to build my imaginary sanatorium than in an imaginary town?
Incorporating surrealism, perversion, horror, and guilt, Kaniuk takes Adam from an entertainer in Weimar Germany to the concentration camps of World War II to post-war Berlin, Tel Aviv, and finally Seizling, the sanatorium stuck in the desert. The novel attracted many callers, legendary filmmakers who wanted to bring Kaniuk’s words to the screen. But none were brave enough to tackle the material head-on. It was the business about the dog that tripped them up. It did not trip up Paul Schrader.
Of all the directors and writers to come out of the New Hollywood Cinema, Schrader is one of the few who has both gotten his due while still being underrated. His scripts for Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ are beyond reproach, and his films as director—from 1978’s Blue Collar to 2017’s First Reformed—contain works of endless intrigue. And despite not writing the script, that honor fell to Noah Stollman, Adam Resurrected falls neatly into Schrader’s theme of “A monocular film.” Like Taxi Driver and Hardcore, Adam Resurrected revolves around one character, an unreliable narrator, and plunges the viewer into a world where they never come to trust what they are seeing.
Adam Resurrected also falls at an interesting transition for Schrader’s career. As Schrader explains in the commentary track accompanying MVD’s release, his previous two decades behind the camera were spent trying to employ the Classical Hollywood style: Clean cuts, smooth camera movements, blocking on the axis, etc. But with Adam Resurrected, Schrader felt he needed to explore a new style, something that fit the tone of Kaniuk’s tale. So he turned to handheld cameras, lens distortion, varying levels of color and grain to signal flashbacks, and camera moves meant to disorient rather than clarify. At the time, it wasn’t far off what other filmmakers were doing, but it was a million miles away from the lockdown control of American Gigolo. It worked for Adam Resurrected and pushed Schrader to employ what he called “rock ’n’ roll” filmmaking for his next cycle of movies: The Canyons, Dying of the Light, and Dog Eat Dog.
Yes, the dogs. There are three dogs in Adam Resurrected: A German shepherd owned by Nazi Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe), Adam, and a third that echoes both but is best left for the movie to explain. It’s the aspect of Kaniuk’s story that flummoxed the others but allowed Schrader a way in.
Adam Resurrected is available now on Blu-ray from MVD Visual Entertainment. Both picture (high definition 1080p) and sound (5.1 surround, 2.0 stereo) are top-notch, as is the commentary track from Schrader. A behind-the-scenes featurette and a Q&A from the Haifa International Film Festival are both good but fall short in the technical department. The deleted scenes feature one scene from the novel that pushed the surrealism of the story to a limit the movie could not contain. Watch it, and it’ll cast Adam’s post-war years in a very different light.