The big issue surrounding “Adam Resurrected” isn’t so much whether it’s been done well, but rather whether it was worth doing at all. Director Paul Schrader and scenarist Noah Stollman have lucidly interpreted the tricky themes of Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, and Jeff Goldblum’s performance as a brilliant but deranged Holocaust survivor is a genuine tour de force. But some great and complicated works of literature — “Ulysses,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “Absalom, Absalom,” et al. — are so rooted to their origins on the page that they are best left there. Largely set in two of the least appetizing locations imaginable, a concentration camp and an insane asylum, this is a rigorously made film that does almost nothing to invite the viewer into its world, spelling very limited commercial potential.
Israeli writer Kaniuk’s 1968 novel inspired hosannas from highbrow critics and generated a considerable following for its intricate expression of ideas relating to guilt, madness, control and the master-captive connection as equated with the relationship between human and dog. As was the case with “Catch-22,” to which Kaniuk’s work was often compared, more than a few filmmakers and actors were tempted by the material over the years.
First seen being checked into a fancy experimental sanitarium for Holocaust survivors in the middle of Israel’s Negev Desert in 1961, Adam Stein (Goldblum) was a big cabaret star in Berlin in the ’20s and ’30s. As seen in monochrome flashbacks, Stein was a first-class magician and mind-reader with an endless supply of clever patter.
In the sleek asylum, beautifully fashioned by production designer Alexander Manasse, Stein’s gift for gab remains undiminished. Speaking quietly in a soft German accent, Goldblum is sometimes difficult to understand as he races through stream-of-consciousness monologues on diverse topics that allow him to dominate most of the other inmates, seduce an attractive nurse (Ayelet Zurer) and manipulate the chief doctor (Derek Jacobi) into giving him a free hand at the facility.
As glib and imperturbable as he seems, Stein is deeply disturbed by the arrival of a wild child who thinks he’s a dog. We shortly learn why: At the Stellring concentration camp in 1944, Stein was separated from the other prisoners by Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe), a fan of his cabaret act. Stein’s fate, however, was to literally become a pet dog, as Klein made him do tricks and play the violin as other Jews, including Stein’s own family members, were herded into the gas chamber.
Because he was “a good dog,” Stein not only survived but was given the means to live in luxury in postwar Berlin. But he was also haunted by the wartime horrors, as well as a prime target for those seeking to punish Jews suspected of collaborating with the Nazis.
Not your usual Holocaust story, to be sure, and one fraught with intense moral ambiguities and uncomfortable propositions. The film’s intelligence honors its source, and the contrast between the stark, black-and-white flashbacks and the modernist sharpness of the asylum is bracing. And yet it all feels like an intellectual exercise, with no emotional point of entry. The events and behavior depicted are off-putting enough, but the film’s chilly temperature is even more forbidding.
So one can tremendously admire Goldblum’s quicksilver performance without being engaged by it; even before the war, Stein seems unlike other people, and after liberation, his humanity has vanished. He’s an exceptional character, and Goldblum has reckoned with it better than audiences are likely to.
Dafoe as the stern commandant aware of his own tragedy, and little Tudor Rapiteanu as the feral dog-boy stand out in a capable supporting cast. Shot in Israel and Romania, the film has a clean, vivid look as captured by Sebastian Edschmid’s camera. Gabriel Yared’s plaintive score adds some feeling that’s otherwise in short supply.