While the Holocaust is certainly a legitimate topic of inquiry for the committed filmmaker, most contemporary treatments of the Nazi camps betray their mission by allowing the viewer to feel altogether too comfortable as they take in the on-screen atrocities. Whether through the establishment of a mitigating historical distance, the adoption of standard genre tropes or the repetition of an established catalog of horrors, films like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and A Secret tend to overly familiarize the events of World War II, allowing the viewer to safely assimilate that conflict’s genocidal horrors. But whatever the flaws of Adam Resurrected, and despite the fact that no physical violence is perpetrated on screen, Paul Schrader never allows the viewer to get comfortably situated, relying on an absurdist central conceit and a rapidly shifting array of intellectual and moral concerns—whose superficial treatment unfortunately leads to a certain diffuseness in the work—to continually de-familiarize his subject.
Cutting between a psychiatric institute for Survivors in 1960s Israel and Germany during the war years, Adam Resurrected follows Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum), a popular music hall clown in 1930s Berlin who’s sent to the death camps along with his wife and daughter, but strikes a bargain with the Commandant, Klein (Willem Dafoe), to serve as his “pet” in exchange for not being gassed. Crawling around on all fours for Klein’s amusement or challenging a dog for a piece of meat, Stein lives out the war in this state of tortured debasement while his fellow prisoners are marched to their death. Years later, a mass of suppressed survivor guilt, he’s sent to the asylum where he passes the time entertaining his fellow inmates, with whom he’s a great favorite, screwing the head nurse, and sneaking slugs of whiskey on the sly.
But when a young boy, believing himself to be a dog, is admitted to the institute, Stein’s unexamined past can no longer remain past, the boy serving as both an unwelcome reminder of his own prior debasement and an opportunity at present redemption. At first intent on keeping him locked into his feral state, Stein becomes determined to help him transcend it, insisting that the boy (and by extension himself) is “not a dog, he’s a man.” While this narrative conceit seems unfairly contrived, it provides Schrader with not only the structural means to tie his two historical periods together but allows him to fashion some of the film’s most striking imagery. From the first glimpse of the boy cowering in his abject cell, a bag with two eye slits draped over his head, to shots of Goldblum dragging the nearly naked kid around on all fours, a leash cruelly attached to his neck, Schrader conjures up a series of images that suggest mankind’s possibility for debasement, even if the cause of the boy’s doglike regression remains unexplained. Neatly rhyming with the crisp black-and-white shots from the camp segments (in one heartbreaker, Stein’s forced to mimic a dog for Commandant Klein’s amusement while his wife and daughter are being herded off to the death chambers behind him), such imagery evokes not only the horror but the essential absurdity of mass acts of inhumanity.
Finally, though, what do all Schrader’s visual grotesqueries achieve? Beyond the obvious power of its evocation of debasement, there’s little in the film that sticks. Filling in the movie’s margins with philosophical dialog about God’s absence, thinly sketched characterizations of the other inmates and the requisite religious symbolism, Schrader litters his work with marginal detritus that, rather than adding to the film’s moral and intellectual heft, tends to dissipate it instead. At once overstuffed and underimagined, Adam Resurrected is an intermittently fascinating, often indifferent mess of a picture, a film that has occasional moments of overwhelming power and many more that leave the viewer completely cold. Still, with so many films that make 1940s Germany look as delightfully quaint as Victorian England, it’s refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t betray the memory of the six million through the cheap comforts of historical distancing. If nothing else, the legacy of the Holocaust feels very much alive in Schrader’s picture.