The lost picture show
Strange, violent and provocative, the film 'Adam' was screened in Israel for three weeks in 1974 and then shelved. One-time director Yona Day and others look back with nostalgia
There's a trail of churning, foaming spray - colored a frightening red - following the speedboat cutting across the screen. The song playing in the background while the opening film credits appear, called "Zeh Koreh" (It Happens ), is recognizable even though the lyrics cannot be heard.
The person who wrote the song then appears on the screen: Shmulik Kraus is seen holding a pair of surgical clamps, with which he proffers a white mouse, alive and twitching, to a caged bird of prey. The camera focuses on Kraus' penetrating and intimidating look, riveted to the violent and bloody scene taking place in front of him. A hint of a smile steals across his face.
Thus begins the film "Adam," which premiered in Israel in September 1974, ran for three weeks, and was shelved. It contains strange, blunt, cruel and provocative scenes, such as that of the mouse being devoured, two horses copulating in a field, a frog being crushed to death beneath the sole of a shoe in a stomach-churning close-up, as well as a sex scene that is especially daring by the standards of those days. Alongside these, in a disconcerting contrast, the film displays a delicate meticulousness and an emphasis - surprising and unusual in an era characterized by the so-called "bourekas movie" genre - on color, design and architecture.
The puzzling nature of "Adam" derives in part from the man who made it. This story begins almost 40 years ago, when a Tel Aviv businessman who was the proprietor of Cafe Noga, then known as a meeting place for artists and creative types, decided he wanted to make a movie.
"The only education I had in filmmaking was from standing on the side and watching whenever I saw people shooting a movie somewhere. That's it," Yona Day said in a recent interview at Cafe Noga, which he still owns. "I saw the mistakes others made, and I saw who did things right. For the most part what I saw was not to my liking. I believed that cinema does not have to be local in nature. I knew that if I were to make a movie, I'd make something more universal."
Day refuses to reveal his age today, but Meir Schnitzer's "Israeli Cinema: Facts, Plots, Directors, Opinions" (Kinneret Press, 1994; in Hebrew ) states he was born in 1939. Day will also not divulge how much money he invested in producing the film, but newspapers from that period reported that the budget was about 1 million Israeli liras. Aside from the cafe, Day also declines to specify what sort of business he was engaged in at the time.
"I never worked in a specific place. Mainly I know how to activate people. I had all kinds of businesses, all of them proper and legal, and all successful," he grins, adding when pressed that among other things, he ran businesses in fields like window dressing and agriculture.
When Day decided to make a thriller, he enlisted his wife, painter Alima Zitrin Day, to help him write the screenplay. The story the couple came up with was about a handsome and successful surgeon, Dr. Dan Adam (played by Kraus, better known as a singer ), who sets out to refute a psychologist's thesis that "a man who recognizes his own self-worth will not kill or murder to solve his problems." Dr. Adam begins terrorizing the life of the psychologist (Ilan Dar ), persecutes his wife (Iris Davidesco ) and daughter, and near the end of the movie, in a surprising twist, abdicates the role of murderer to someone else.
"A while back I saw the new Israeli film 'Adam' by Yona Day," esteemed film critic Zeev Rav Nof wrote in the newspaper Davar in July 1974. "Then something unusual happened to me: Despite my clear awareness that the film is bad, I felt that I was seeing before me the new figure - positive, brilliant and fascinating - of a filmmaker who has fierce and natural reactions, who relies on feeling not based on prior knowledge, education or experience. I was witnessing a 'talent from the deep.'"'Are you nuts?'
Yona Day was born to Zionist parents of Persian origin, while they were sailing to the Land of Israel on a ship from South America. He grew up in Tel Aviv's Neve Tzedek neighborhood, went on to become a successful businessman, before deciding to embark on his adventure in cinema, in the early 1970s.
"I began looking into who I could get [for 'Adam']," he recalls. "For the lead role I wanted Arik Einstein. I saw in him something suitable for playing a madman, but also smart. I told his agent, 'Listen, I'll pay him well,' but he wouldn't agree. And then, one day, I saw Shmulik Kraus on television and noticed the madness in his eyes. People asked, 'Are you nuts? He's doped up, he's crazy ...' But to me he wasn't crazy, but rather a smart guy to whom you had to know how to talk. I remember auditioning him, and then I said, 'Say, Shmulik, everyone's really warning me about you. You know I'll be taking on a big responsibility. This is a feature film. You won't give me trouble?' He shook his head, and he was fine pretty much until the end."
Kraus' image in the media in those days, having spent time in prison for violent outbursts and in a mental hospital, fit the character of the violent maniac. Kraus says now that he agreed to act in the film because the character of Dr. Adam, the crazed doctor prepared to sacrifice his life to discredit a theoretical thesis, piqued his curiosity. He admits the scene in which he watches the mouse get pecked to death by the bird is "sick," and in retrospect even regrets agreeing to act in the film, but insists he enjoyed working with Day, despite the latter's lack of professional credentials. "He would say 'start' instead of 'action,'" Kraus recalls. "That made me laugh, so I taught him to use professional terminology."
Day says that he deliberately insisted on using his own language instead of the professional jargon. "I wouldn't say 'cut' or 'action.' When I wanted Milek [the nickname of cinematographer Emil Knebel] to start shooting, I'd say 'go,'" he laughs. "At first he didn't understand, tried to tell me to say 'action,' but I told him, 'Don't wait for 'action' from me. When I say 'go,' shoot. When I say 'enough,' stop. In the end he got used to it, and when I'd say 'go!' he'd smile."
Despite his inexperience, Day did not hesitate to hand out orders to crew and cast members. This was the case, for example, with Ilan Dar, who played the persecuted psychologist.
"It was very difficult for me to take a theater actor like Dar and 'transfer' him to cinema," Day recounts. "He would exaggerate everything ... This was not theater."
For the role of Dar's wife he cast a young model, rather than an experienced and well-known actress.
"She was 16 and a half, but looked like a woman," Day says of Iris Davidesco, a local glamour girl of the era who was then psychic-entertainer Uri Geller's girlfriend for many years. "She was pure. I also interviewed Gila Almagor for the part, at a coffee shop on Ben Yehuda Street, but she was so theatrical I got scared. Her theatricality seemed to me inappropriate for the movie."
One of the key figures on the set of "Adam" was cinematographer Knebel, who because of the director-producer's inexperience became a prominent authority and consultant during filming.
Knebel: "At first I was a little wary of [Day], because he came without any film background, but on the other hand I was very impressed by the fact that he had the guts to go for it. He was brilliant in his intelligence and quick thinking, very serious, but without any artistic background. He had an ambition to make a movie the way he liked, and he had great belief in his own ability."
Many members of the cast and crew treated the novice director with suspicion, if not contempt.
"I wondered why he was making a film. He wasn't a director. He hung out in bohemian circles. I'd met him once or twice before, at a party or something like that, and all of a sudden he was making a movie," says actor Shlomo Vishinsky, who played a police detective in "Adam."
Practically everyone who saw the film, or participated in its making, remembers first and foremost the scene with the copulating horses. Sometimes the cruelty to the frog and the unfortunate mouse are also recalled, but mainly it's the horses. The scene is followed immediately by a sex scene between Dr. Adam and a nurse. Day insists today that provocation was not his objective.
Day: "Dr. Adam was a crazy person, and I have to show his madness in all sorts of ways. Why does he suddenly stomp like that on a frog? Why does he suddenly let a bird devour a mouse like that? Because he's crazy! Why is he surfing out there in the sea, risking his life? Because he's crazy! And why do I show the scene with the horses before Dr. Adam's sex scene? Because the man is like an animal. When he's in the throes of sexual ecstasy he is exactly like the horse - what's the difference?"Herzliya set
Knebel emphasizes that in contrast to other producers from those days, Day was scrupulous about paying the production crew everything they were owed, and says he was in awe of the way Day handled matters.
"Directing and also producing a film is a very big undertaking - it's managing a team of 50-60 people, each with his own ego and own ideas, and it's not like overseas, where everyone obeys. Quite the contrary," Knebel explains. "In this case even the grips have something to say about everything. But Yona ruled with an iron fist ... On the set he always knew what he wanted, and he wasn't influenced by anyone else. The movie is him. Both in terms of the content and also in terms of the form. He had powerful charisma and great leadership strength. Shmulik, for example, at that time didn't have the reputation of a disciplined man who would show up every day at 8 A.M. He was a wonderful artist, but I was worried that it would not be easy to control him. To my surprise, under Yona's guidance, he worked like a Swiss clock."
A great deal of attention went into the costumes, artistic design and the locations selected for filming. Alima Day, who was in charge of the costumes, swathed Davidesco in clothes that underscored the bourgeois nature of her character; she dressed Kraus in unconventional clothes, such as a coat with a fur collar and an orange wool jacket, which add another facet to Dr. Adam's peculiarity.
"Shmulik was dead set against the way they dressed him, and I was sure that sooner or later his jacket would get lost so he could wear what he wanted. But to my surprise, he obeyed," Knebel laughs.
Day recalls that he did not hesitate to spend a lot of money to rent stylish locations for the set. Particularly impressive is the spacious, rather futuristic Herzliya Pituah house that served as Dr. Adam's home.
"The house belonged to wealthy people, but for $1,000 a day they agreed to let me film there," Day notes. "The house symbolizes an individual's personality, and it was important to me to show [Dr. Adam] there in his great solitude ... Besides, the movie was aimed at the wider world - I wanted it to be international. I wanted dignified design."
A surprising personality shows up briefly in "Adam": Margot Klausner, in a rare film appearance. Klausner, who owned Herzliya Studios, plays someone who oversees a company board meeting that Dr. Adam attends. It soon becomes clear that the tough character is none other than the strange doctor's mother.
"I needed someone to play Adam's mother," Day remembers. "Back then I hung around Herzliya Studios a lot, so I decided that she could be right for the part. I offered it to her, and she agreed. It was a very small part, and she was a bit odd, so it seemed right."
As the filming came close to wrapping up, the iron discipline that Day had imposed began to fray. The closing scene of the film was supposed to show a particularly brutal battle out at sea between the doctor and the psychologist, but then, for the first time, things went awry.
Day: "After nearly two months of filming, I was worn out." Kraus and Dar objected to the great work required of them in this scene, which included underwater filming, and the director gave in and changed his concept of it.
"That is one reason I didn't have the right ending for the film. It was supposed to be war between the two men on Adam's yacht. They were supposed to be soaked in blood. It was supposed to be the climax of the film. But I was already tired, and the two of them no longer wanted to take part, so I said let's finish. And to my chagrin it is still missing. If only I'd had another drop of patience ..."
When he finished editing "Adam," Day tried marketing it to distributors at the Cannes Festival, and showed it to an international audience, but it did not generate enough enthusiasm. Because he had dreamed of distributing the film internationally, Day shot two versions of the film, in English and Hebrew. The Israeli premiere took place on September 7, 1974, when it closed the Safed film festival. A few days later "Adam" opened at local movie houses, where it survived for just three weeks. According to data from the Industry and Trade Ministry, 31,600 people saw it. For the sake of comparison, the Israeli film "Charlie and a Half" came out the same year and attracted nearly 700,000 moviegoers. The critics mainly complimented technical aspects of the film, but slammed the screenplay and some of the actors.
Today Day concedes that "Adam" is an immature piece of work, and that his film had problems, but still insists that it was ahead of its time.
"The end was too delicate, it had no orgasm," he notes. "I also think I had a slightly exaggerated faith in the audience's intelligence. I claimed that cinema is not just all about words, and reduced the dialogue to a minimum. If I had explained a tiny bit more, if I had offered more dialogue, people would have understood more."
Schnitzer, in his book "Israeli Cinema" wrote: "It is hard to describe the plot of this film, because there isn't one. It prefers to outline situations by offering a moral lesson, and solves them one at a time. Within the framework of the ostensibly moral debate presented by 'Adam,' a well-made scene is occasionally achieved - in terms of direction, cinematography and lighting - which show that essentially, this rather alienating film was a good idea, whose failure to be realized stems from the lack of experience of its creator."
"If we examine the period and cinematic context in which it was made," says cinema scholar and critic Shmulik Duvdevani, "'Adam' turns out to be a thriller, almost a horror film, certainly a rare genre in Israeli film, then and now. It deals with violence and the disease of the Israeli bourgeoisie; it generates an atmosphere of the pursuit of prey. This hidden violence says something about the Israeli bourgeoisie and society in the period in which it was made - the era of the Yom Kippur War and its ramifications .... This, in my view, is a fairly radical statement for that period."
Day never made another film. After the chilly reception and resounding commercial failure of "Adam," he went back to his business endeavors.
"I'm not sorry I made the film. If I hadn't made it, I would have felt my whole life that I missed out," he says today, but it seems that discussion of the movie and recalling his experiences 40 years ago have aroused his appetite anew. "We'll see, maybe this article will bring me back to cinema yet," Day smiles. "I don't lack for ideas."