Adam Resurrected--Bleiberg Entertainment
Theater of War--White Buffalo Entertainment
Like some European film-makers, Paul Schrader began his career as a critic. In 1972 he published Transcendental Style in Film, a perceptive study of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer. He then proceeded to write and direct some untranscendental films, such as The Yakuza, about Japanese gangsters; Blue Collar, about union workers; and Hardcore, about porn. But grit was not to be his sole metier. His career has ranged widely, including a fictionalized biopic about Yukio Mishima, and The Comfort of Strangers, a subtle stratagem set in Venice. Could it be that his initial critical overview made him hungry for different possibilities? In any case, whatever the degree of success in each instance, he has insisted on change.
Now Schrader reaches the Holocaust. The debate about the morally acceptable use of the Holocaust in art continues: so does the making of such art. Holocaust films are now a genre, which is not an unmixed blessing--or unmixed curse. Adam Resurrected is a benefit, slender but valid, partly because it is not a direct confrontation of the subject. The approach is oblique, implying rather than depicting horror. This approach, as used here, is not mere novelty: it treats an aspect of the Holocaust that has been less frequently dealt with and that, in at least some measure, expands our empathy. More: the protagonist, through his very character, is a concise sampling of large human contradictions.
Schrader's basic material was an old novel by the Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk, which has been much translated and discussed, and much bruited about as a film project. Now, with a screenplay by Noah Stollman, Schrader gives it screen being. The principal setting is a nursing home in Israel for Holocaust survivors. Kaniuk gives his subject an oddly moving turn by focusing on a comedian in this home.
Adam Stein, a survivor still working on his survival, was a cafe comic in the Berlin of the early 1930s. His act, full of jokes and tricks, was seen by a Nazi officer, and when Adam was eventually arrested, that officer devilishly exploited the comic's performing temperament. The Nazi took him into his quarters and made Adam live and work like a dog: moving about on all fours, carrying things in his mouth, and so on.
All this we learn in flashbacks. Most of the story is set in the 1960s, when Adam is still performing--seeming to perform his life now--in the survivors' home, still scarred in mind by the dog years. (The flashbacks are in black and white; the "present" is in the cool color of Sebastian Edschmid's camera.) His behavior is no longer canine, but he is a marked man, mordant, enforcedly smooth, moving among otherwise marked people in the home. For instance, one of them sweeps constantly without a broom; another always keeps her right arm raised. The comic, burdened by his own humiliating past, is given to occasional fits of violence that seem outbursts of long-delayed, misdirected revenge.
It is almost a matter of good luck for Adam that a boy of about ten is somehow brought to this home, a child who, through past mistreatment, imagines himself a dog and behaves like one as far as he can. The main thrust of the story is the interplay between Adam and the doglike child, and how they redeem each other--how each can claim himself for himself. The story has a faint suggestion of Kafka, especially because of Adam's profession. Comedy, strangely apt, pervades Kafka's work. (Reiner Stach says of The Trial that "the text as a whole is terrifying, but the details are funny.") This is not to say that Schrader's film is anywhere near Kafka's level; still, its eerie humor and the idea of discovery through debasement remind us of him.
Adam Resurrected is rendered whole through its very making. First, the setting. Alexander Manasse has designed a building that seems both cleansing and comforting, a refuge where recovery from affliction may be possible. As with all good design, we feel that this is the only place where these events could have happened.
Next, and bizarrely perfect, comes Jeff Goldblum's performance as Adam. Throughout his career, Goldblum has often conveyed the sense that he is an amused observer of the troubles he is in. He has embodied the idea that comedy, sometimes painfully, persists just as constantly as woe. The first time I saw Goldblum, in The Tall Guy (1989), the opening shot of him was a close-up in a dinner jacket; then the camera moved down and revealed that he was wearing a tutu. He was even then playing a comedian, who had some serious things ahead of him in that picture. This combination, or contrast, has colored a lot of his work ever since, and it is central to his performance here. Adam is a man of torments, but, as with so many comics, that doesn't stop him from trying to be funny. Goldblum is ideal in the role. He makes the picture possible. (Authentic performances, less pivotal, come from Derek Jacobi as the head of the institution and Willem Dafoe as the Nazi officer.)
Then there is Schrader's directing. His work here is not only adroit--a toy train in the home dissolves into a Nazi train back then--it has an air of arrival, as if he had found a subject for which he had been searching. Of course he knows the antecedent Holocaust films, and he seems to anticipate a viewer's possible questions about this story. The way he handles his people and sustains the delicate atmosphere overcomes such doubts as they arise. He seems so convinced of the necessity for this film that, before long, we too accept it as an eccentric yet rewarding view of immense themes. Adam Resurrected becomes more than just another Holocaust film. Small but trenchant, it is an increase in experience.
Theater of War, directed by John Walter, is a documentary about the Public Theater's production in 2006 of Mother Courage and Her Children, Bertolt Brecht's play about a peddler during the Thirty Years' War who follows soldiers in a wagon drawn by her children. We get an adequate behind-the-scenes tour of the theatrical details, but the film is most valuable for its glimpses of Meryl Streep as she prepares her Mother Courage.
Tony Kushner, who did the adaptation for this production, speaks about the play movingly. Clips of Brecht at various ages dot the picture. His daughter, Barbara Brecht-Schall, now in her seventies, is heard but not seen as she reminisces about him and her mother, Helene Weigel, who first played the lead. Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music, enlightens us about her method of work. The novelist and essayist Jay Cantor overloads the film with Marxist simplicities meant to illuminate the text. (One intent of the play--there are others--is to show war as a matter of business masked with windy verbiage.) Brecht's theater ideas, uniquely his, would have been more helpful.
Then there is Streep. We don't often get a chance to see an actor working on a part. The only previous example I know--fascinating, too--is a compilation of footage that was shot of Charles Laughton preparing the title role of I, Claudius in 1937. (The film was never finished.) The bits and pieces of Streep's rehearsals show her feeling her way into her characterization with insight and discretion. But her strongest moment comes at the end, when she speaks to us about why she wanted to do the play. Essentially, she almost shouts, she wants to know why--that is, she wanted to do a play that asks why men continue to make war when its grotesque costs of every kind are blatant.
Aldous Huxley said, "That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach." Possibly some version of Huxley's remark, found in herself, impelled Streep toward the play. In any case, her rehearsing and her comments give us an instance of an accomplished artist approaching a role.
From Germany comes another intriguing documentary. The very title, Dust, is attractive: this film, we feel, is going to examine a commonplace of our lives that we usually disregard but that is worth attention.
Hartmut Bitomsky, a well-known documentarian, has done just what his one- word title suggests--and more. He takes us past our daily encounters with dust into laboratories and plants where the very existence of dust provides a vocation. We learn that there are "dust libraries" in various countries and that international exchanges on the subject are constant and are helpful in dust control.
The film is crisp and clear as scientists who devote their lives to dust explain their techniques and purposes. These inquiries deal with industrial hazards, with explosions, with giant demolitions (nuclear blasts and 9/11 included) and their global effect. These subjects we might have expected. Less expected is the careful, specialized work of dusting that goes on in and for art museums and galleries, particularly with wooden sculpture and with painting. To see a white-gloved technician clean a painting with an ultra-soft brush is to murmur "Of course" knowingly about something we have probably never thought about.
But the crux of the film is the everyday--not factories or explosions or galleries but our homes. Bitomsky's film emphasizes that, however tidy we may be, dust is always lurking, waiting for us to let our guard down, trying to infiltrate with news of the world. It even brings human evidence: human cells are fairly constant in the mix. This picture is not a lesson in hygiene but an opening in awareness. There is no such thing as freedom from dust. We are surrounded, wherever we are, with (as one technician says) the invisible trying to make itself visible. This fact almost touches the metaphysical.
Stanley Kauffmann is film editor of The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann