2007-04-26

Holocaust Role A Spiritual Journey





By Stephen Applebaum

April 26, 2007 12:00am

JEFF Goldblum has had to dig deeply into his Jewish heritage for his latest film.

IN 1969, Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk wrote a novel, Adam Resurrected, whose protagonist was a German Jew and once Europe's greatest clown. Having survived the Holocaust by entertaining victims on their way to the ovens, Adam Stein suffers a mental breakdown years later and enters rehabilitation in Israel's Negev Desert, where he gradually finds his way back to sanity.

Now American director Paul Schrader is making the novel into a film, with Jewish-American actor Jeff Goldblum in the title role. Goldblum has been researching the role for several months when I meet him before he starts filming. The 54-year-old Pittsburgh native spent time in Berlin, talking to Holocaust survivors and studying the lives of Jews before and during the war.

His family had a different experience of the era, he says: his grandparents left Europe in the early 1900s and therefore missed the horror of the Nazi era. His paternal grandfather came from Russia and changed his name to Goldblum when he settled in the US.

Despite the wide availability of information in so many domains since the war, Goldblum says he is finding his inquiries challenging.

"We are shooting it for a few months, which is no time in relation to what people went through when they lived through those times,'' he says. "I have talked to so many survivors and I say, 'How long were you in camps?' and they say, 'Four years.' It's just unimaginable.''


Goldblum's research has taken him down some unnerving paths. He has been investigating how to be a dog, for example, as well as how to fake playing the violin. Part of Stein's repertoire includes animal impersonations: a camp commander (played by Willem Dafoe) is so amused by Stein's canine impressions that he forces him to act like a dog, even to sharing living space and food with the officer's pet dog.

Portraying the Holocaust on film was once taboo, but this has gradually been eroded by films such as Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and Tim Blake Nelson's daring The Grey Zone.

"The Holocaust is a very delicate, holy, sacred area,'' Goldblum says. "People are still alive (that lived through it) and the world is still affected by it. So when I was reading the script, I kept thinking, 'Is this rendition of it really good? Is there a reason not to do this?'

"As I kept working on it and meeting the cast, my instinct was that it's very worth doing. It's worth doing for me at least.''

The film's German, Israeli and American actors include some descendants of Holocaust survivors. But Goldblum is vague when questioned about his Jewish identity. He was bar mitzvahed in an orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh, he says, and attended Hebrew school.

"There are things about me that are Jewish, although I have a spiritual appetite, I might say, where I identify myself with larger groups than just Jews. And those spiritual appetites have something to do with this movie, which is why it appeals to me,'' he says.

Prompted to elaborate, he says: "With stories of horrible, shocking, violent, complete loss, it's always - as the wisdom literature tells us - an opportunity for grace, potentially, and I'm interested in that. And that's an element in Adam Resurrected.''

When Goldblum started acting in the 1960s, training involved exploration of other mental and physical disciplines, such as yoga, say.

"I was interested in space and the magical world beyond thinking, and the magical world of being, and of being anything and nothing,'' he says.

Acting looked to him early on like it could be a "spiritual adventure''.

Goldblum's parents were interested in theatre, though neither of them acted professionally. He left home at 17 and went to live in New York, where he studied with famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner. Initially supported by his parents, he soon started earning enough money from acting to support himself.

From an inauspicious start as a rapist in Michael Winner's Death Wish, Goldblum went on to get a bit part in Robert Altman's California Split, and then a bigger one in Altman's masterpiece, Nashville. He also had a small role in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. But it was his role in The Big Chill that made his name. Since then he has moved between independent films such as Igby Goes Down and Hal Hartley's new movie, Fay Grim, which screened in Berlin in February, and blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and Independence Day.

He returned to the theatre in 2005, in a Broadway production of Martin McDonagh's Pillowman (which will have its Australian premiere in Melbourne next month) and won a critics' award. He has done more film than theatre, but doesn't prefer one to the other.

"I just like acting,'' he says. ``It depends on the material and the people you're working with.''

The material he is working on now is clearly stretching him. I ask him whether he believes we have learned anything from the Holocaust. After all, today in eastern Europe, nationalists are again targeting Jews.

"In some ways it feels like it's getting worse in some places, and in the whole human organism, and in some ways getting better,'' he says. "There's an opportunity for grace and enlightenment now more than ever, but urgently, as things are getting more radically dark, too.''

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3 comments:

Ambra said...

I can't wait to see this movie! It sounds really powerful and I know Jeff is going to be amazing in it! I'll have to see if I can find a copy of the book to read before the movie comes out.

Miz Cee-Cee said...

Hi Ambra!

Thanks for reading this blog and all your comments. I'm sorry I can't respond to them all.

I agree this movie looks amazing. I am planning on locating a copy of this book in order to read it before the film comes out. I'm really excited to see Jeff in another new leading role and especially to see him work with Willem Dafoe again - another of my favourite actors.

Ambra said...

amazon.com has copies of the book; I'll have to wait until I get paid to order a copy. I'm also going to check Barnes and Noble because I have a discount card with them.

As for not responding to all my comments--no apology necessary! I'm just glad there's an up-to-date site for Jeff fans!