Occasionally a film happens along that grapples with important themes and is expertly made, but is simply too odd and off-putting to be anything more than an almost grotesque curiosity. That’s the case with “Adam Resurrected,” and it’s not surprising that it should come from Paul Schrader, a filmmaker of great ambition but one whose reach often exceeds his grasp.
Based on the novel by Yoram Kaniuk, the film centers on Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum), a famous entertainer in a Berlin nightclub during the 1930s, where, among others, he gets a strange fellow named Klein (Willem Dafoe) laughing hysterically. As a Jew, of course, he’ll eventually be seized and deported to a concentration camp by the Nazis, along with his family.
We’re actually introduced to him, however, in the early 1960s, when Stein is removed from a residential hotel to his former home, a glistening sanitarium for Holocaust survivors deep in the Israeli desert. There he’s a troublesomely charismatic patient, dominating both the institution’s pliable director (Derek Jacobi) and head nurse (Ayelet Zurer), who’s attracted to him. But the arrival of a new patient—a boy who acts like a dog (Tudor Rapiteanu)—sends him into a panic.
The reason is explained in black-and-white flashbacks to the forties, when Stein found himself sent to a death camp presided over by Klein, who picked him out from the prisoners to serve as his pet while the others—including Adam’s own family—were sent off to die. Stein literally played the dog for Klein while also being required to play the violin as prisoners were herded off to the gas chamber and do clownish routines for his “master.” At war’s end Klein found himself wealthy but shunned by survivors who saw him as a traitor and guilt-ridden about how he’d saved himself, and the arrival of the dog-boy revives all the horrors for him.
What follows is Stein’s desperate effort to draw the boy back into the human world, along with his own attempt to recover a degree of normalcy when he discovers that his daughter survived the war. But neither works out as hoped, and in the end Stein must come to terms with the wartime legacy that’s still inside him.
One has to admire Schrader’s attempt to dramatize a Holocaust story that’s more complex and challenging than most, and Goldblum’s decision to tackle a role that requires both a perverted charisma and the deepest depths of depression and self-loathing. But both stumble in different ways. Schrader employs his customary cold, clinical style in a fashion that makes the picture seem not just emotionally chilly but positively sterile, and the result fails to generate the needed empathy. And though Goldblum throws himself into Stein, the performance comes across as artificial (and his slurred speech, together with his accent, makes some of his lines unintelligible). Dafoe does his creepily malevolent routine well, and Jacobi is appropriately befuddled; Rapiteanu too is eerily effective. But none of them, nor the strangely elegant design of Alexander Manasse and precisely gauged cinematography by Sebastian Edschmid make up for the central failings.
The fundamental problem with “Adam Resurrected” is that in Schrader’s hands it’s a cerebral, almost academic adaptation of a narrative that, though it deals with profundities in highly intellectualized ways (extending, for example, to a twisted take on a Mosaic burning bush near the close), desperately needs a human touch to connect viscerally. One may admire what the picture is trying to achieve, but will probably be a bit appalled at how far it falls short.