NEW YORK — In “Adam Resurrected,” Jeff Goldblum delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Adam Stein, a Weimar-era cabaret star who in the 1960s is relegated to an Israeli insane asylum specifically for Holocaust survivors.
As we learn in flashbacks, he survived a concentration camp by submitting to the perverse whim of a Nazi commandant (Willem Dafoe): behaving like a dog at all times. In the asylum, Stein — wily, charismatic, and devilishly witty — carries on an affair with a sultry nurse (Ayelet Zurer) and falters only when he encounters a new patient, a boy who thinks he’s a dog.
The film, directed by the provocateur Paul Schrader, was adapted by Noah Stollman from the 1968 novel by the Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk.
Goldblum, 56, grew up in Pittsburgh. Over the past 35 years he has worked with directors such as Robert Altman, Philip Kaufman, David Cronenberg, and Steven Spielberg. When I met with him recently to talk about “Adam Resurrected,” he said, “This morning I was on Martha Stewart making menorahs,” and added, “She’s very Jewish.”
NEXTBOOK: Paul Schrader says that the Holocaust “is a subject that in many ways has been exhausted cinematically.” How does “Adam Resurrected” differ from other Holocaust films?
GOLDBLUM: Well, I’ve never seen anything like it. And like Paul, I was struck, in the first reading of the script — the central event of this movie that he describes as being “about a man who was once a dog who meets a dog who was once a boy” — we thought that was a knockout of a metaphor and worth doing. And if you read Yoram Kaniuk’s book, which is just now being reissued — I love the movie, but the book of course is different and more complicated, and more elaborate and spectacular — we tried to stay devoted to the sensibility and voice and spirit of the book.
I met with Kaniuk in Israel. He’s like the character and like the book — snarky and unconventional and surprising and contradictory and brilliant and provocative and wonderful and kind and funny. When the book first came out in Israel there was an uproar. They were like, “Irreverent about this material? Nothing like we’ve seen before.” But since it’s been translated and became an international treasure, and Susan Sontag compared him to Marquez.
NEXTBOOK: Do you agree with Schrader that cinematically the Holocaust genre is played out?
GOLDBLUM: He knows. He’s a cinematic historian, I’m not. While we were filming in Israel I asked him, “What movies shouldn’t I have missed out on by this point?” He said, “Here are the 20 movies I recommend” — many of which I hadn’t seen. I watched them all.
NEXTBOOK: In preparation for the role, you visited former concentration camps and spoke at length with survivors. What did you learn from those experiences?
GOLDBLUM: A greater feeling for those events. Many survivors were very generous with me, welcomed me into their homes, told me their stories, showed me their artifacts. I felt a greater empathy for, understanding of, what it must have been like.
Cafe Europa in Los Angeles is an organization that serves survivors. One of the women who was running Cafe Europa — I said I’d never been to a concentration camp, and she said, “The one I recommend that’s most intact of any is Majdenek, in Poland, outside Lublin.” So I went to Germany, spent a month there, went to Sachsenhausen, and figured out a way to do this side trip to Poland, and it was an amazing experience. Amazing. Reading all about it, immersing myself in it — you can only scratch the surface in a year. But going there and seeing Germany and seeing the concentration camp and standing next to the gas chamber and seeing a room full of shoes — it was life changing, it was very emotional, devastating.
NEXTBOOK: I’ve read that you grew up attending an Orthodox synagogue and went to Hebrew school.
GOLDBLUM: I did!
NEXTBOOK: Did being Jewish have any connection to your choosing the role of Adam?
GOLDBLUM: Yes, possibly so. Well, I had a feeling about it anyway. My dad served in World War II, volunteered in the service, and his brother — who was a pilot, went down, killed, in World War II — looked kind of exactly like me, he was my height exactly. So I always had a connection to, was intrigued by — arrested, disturbed, haunted, and was interested in those events, but not until this year did I really get more fully into it. And yes, when it came to me, I had a predisposition to be interested.
NEXTBOOK: I couldn’t help thinking of your role in “Independence Day,” which was a fairly stereotyped Jew opposite a fairly stereotyped black guy played by Will Smith, and I wondered if in playing Jews you’re ever concerned about the impression you may make.
GOLDBLUM: Yes, that occurs to me.
NEXTBOOK: Have you ever refashioned a role or spoken to a director about those feelings?
GOLDBLUM: I may not have mentioned Jewishness along with it, that may not have been my only or primary concern, but yes, I’ve steered and contributed and otherwise lobbied for adjustment in one aspect or another that could add negative stereotype. And I like to avoid cliche anyway, generally.
NEXTBOOK: Is there anything you learned in Hebrew school that stays with you today?
GOLDBLUM: I was telling somebody today I like that Passover song “Dayenu,” “It would be sufficient.” If nothing else occurred — talking about what I wish I had done, what else I could have done, what I’d like to do now. I have more appetite than ever, looking forward to whatever comes, and have strong feelings, but having said that, if nothing else would occur from the huge abundance that I’ve been gifted with, it would certainly be more than sufficient. And I’d be eternally grateful.
(Lawrence Levi, a co-author of “The Film Snob’s Dictionary,” is a senior editor at Nextbook.org. Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.)