A Groundbreaking Holocaust Film?

by Kevin Jon Heller

I normally look forward (if that is the right expression) to movies about the Holocaust. But I don’t know how I feel about this one:

German and Israeli filmmakers have come together to tackle the subject of the Holocaust for the first time in an ambitious screen adaptation of a bestselling novel.

Their groundbreaking collaboration over the highly sensitive topic has attracted a star-studded cast in what has been described as a ‘tightrope walk’ of a project. Adam Resurrected, based on a darkly comic 1969 novel by popular Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk, tells the story of Adam Stein, a Jewish-German clown who is forced to entertain inmates in a Nazi concentration camp. His life is spared only because he plays his violin for the prisoners being sent to the gas chamber.

Jeff Goldblum is to play the part of Adam, while Willem Dafoe will play the concentration camp commandant who forces him to act like a dog. Goldblum has described it as ‘the most difficult role I have ever had to play’. Directed by Paul Schrader, who is best known for his screenplay for Taxi Driver, and produced by the Israeli Ehud Bleiberg and the German Werner Wirsing, the harrowing film has been compared to Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning Holocaust ‘black comedy’ Life is Beautiful.

One German critic wrote that Adam Resurrected was a ‘risky tightrope walk which, if it is too funny, is in danger of mocking Holocaust survivors, if it is too serious, misrepresents the character of the book’.

Top German actors such as Moritz Bleibtreu and Veronica Ferres also have starring roles along with several Israeli household names such as Ayelet Zurer, who was in Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

It is genuinely exciting to see German and Israeli filmmakers joining forces to explore the darkest chapter in the history of both countries. Yet I wonder if this story is the right one for such a groundbreaking collaboration. Many people whose judgment I respect loved “Life is Beautiful,” but I absolutely loathed it, for all the reasons Charles Taylor of Salon.com discusses here. I hope “Adam Resurrected” does not follow in its predecessor’s footsteps, trivializing the slaughter of millions of innocents by turning the Holocaust into a backdrop for slapstick comedy, but I’m not optimistic. We’ll see.


One Response

  1. I am not sure there is a need to worry about a Paul Schrader movie being funny but I do worry that it might cheapen things through gratuitous violence that desensitizes us to the horror. I believe he did Raging Bull.

    I would think one of the greatest Holocaust movies that could ever be done would be based on the diaries of Werner Klemperer, entitled I Shall Bear Witness. Volume 1 is 1933-1942 and Volume 2 is 1942-1945.

    He was a romance literature professor at a Dresden Technical Institute who was 54 when Hitler came to power. He kept an absolutely amazing diary about his experiences. He was a Jew married to an Aryan and he was a WWI veteran and winner of the Iron Cross. For various reasons, he ends up being in the last selection to be sent to the camps and just when that is to happen Dresden is firebombed and he escapes as a refugee. He died in East Germany in his 90’s.

    His diary is such a moving work describing the step by step removal of rights and dignity – the terrible depression at when he had to wear the yellow star comes five or six years into the first book after so many other humiliations – and so many things about a man who was quintessentially an academic. He wrote articles on his subject matter that he expected would never be published. He just stuck the finished one in his desk drawer and started another one.

    It is a work of the mind so hard to get on film but still if someone could do it – it would be great.

    One tidbit, Werner Klemperer was the father of the Werner Klemperer who played Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes.

    Of course, the other one that I think would be amazing is Growing up Black in Nazi Germany by Hugh Massaquoit. He was born of a Liberian father and a German mother and raised by his mother during the Nazi years. He survived the war and ended up an editor for Ebony magazine. Did he and his family know of the Holocaust? That is one of the difficult things about the book because he saw slave laborers who were jews but does not say he or his family was aware of the final solution. His description of what he faced as a little boy going to school is terribly moving.

    The third one is based on a French documentary called “Noirs dans les Camps Nazis” or blacks in the Nazi camps. There are interviews of black germans who were descendants of the German colony of Togoland before WWI and who lived in Germany. Of course, one of the heaviest things in that book is the discussion of Josef Mengele’s father’s work in Herreroland decimating the Herrero in German Southwest Africa at the beginning of the 1900’s with concentration camps and experiments that chillingly remind one of what the son did in the Nazi camps. I also remember the discussion in the documentary by one black german gentleman of how the Nuremberg laws included blacks in the definitions of those race laws. And then there were the French blacks who survived the camps during the Occupation who tell their tale.

    So many things burst out with this exploration that you are doing and I wish you well on your travels from here in exotic Toledo.



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