At this point in cinematic history, it would seem a daunting task to tell an original story about the well-visited subject of the Holocaust. Yet, here we are: another awards season and another handful of Holocaust movies coming our way (plus one about Tom Cruise trying to kill Hitler that makes audiences laugh in previews -- maybe it's time to change the subject when even Hitler is losing cache as a viable bad guy). Yes, the Holocaust is the definite front-runner for “Great Tragedy of the 20th Century,” and yes, people can be monsters, especially a good number of Germans circa 1939, but really what else is new?
Paul Schrader's offering to this year's crop is Adam Resurrected, based on the 1968 novel by Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk. Schrader is perhaps best known for his screenwriting collaborations with Martin Scorsese, though he has shown himself to be a capable director in his own right, particularly with his 1997 film Affliction. Although this is one of three films Schrader has directed but not written, the titular protagonist Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum) is the type of character Schrader seems most comfortable with: the charismatic and emotionally disturbed individual. In the challenging role of Adam, Goldblum is most adept at delivering quips and the vaudevillian comedy the role entails. His German accent, however, is shaky at best, slipping between Jeff Goldblum doing a German accent and, well, Jeff Goldblum. And the decision to have him narrate in a superfluous voice-over only heightens the viewer's awareness of this throughout the film.
The film offers the potentially interesting conceit of being set primarily in the Siezling Institute, a fictional Israeli mental hospital for Holocaust survivors. Through intermittent flashbacks, we learn of Adam's life as a celebrated Weimar-era clown/magician and his time as a concentration camp prisoner forced to imitate a dog under the rule of Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, in the Institute, Adam wanders through the halls of the hospital with seeming impunity, drinking, abusing, and charming patients and staff. His doctor (Derek Jacobi) takes a laissez-faire attitude towards his “illness” and his nurse (Ayelet Zurer) is too busy screwing him to enforce the regulations (given the hospital's unique nature, a disciplinarian approach might not seem the way to go, and there are a few obligatory comparisons of the bureaucratic hospital staff to the you-know-whos).
Adam seems doomed to a life of sardonic quips, parlor trickery, and nurse-screwing in the Institute, until his supernatural sense of smell (one of a set of psychic abilities) uncovers the presence of a dog. The dog is not actually a dog, but a boy raised to believe he is a dog (so much so that he emits a smell), in a one-off of Adam's imprisonment under the brutal Klein. Through empathizing with and curing this dog-boy, Adam eventually comes to terms with the demons of the Holocaust.
Critic Paul Fussell famously stated that irony was the most suitable way for art to deal with the horrors of war in the 20th century, and, at times, Schrader seems to channel this notion. There is a darkly humorous disconnect with the scope of the tragedy that emerges in the film's best moments, like when Commandant Klein gleefully dresses his German Shepherd in prisoner's clothes or when Adam remarks that the Nazis have “no sense of humor at all” and that “God is out to lunch” and “left a note on [their] arms.” At one point, Adam even delivers a lecture to patients on the value of humor in dealing with tragedy, and while this verges on brain-beatingly “meta”-message -- this is a movie as much about reenactment of tragedy as it is about tragedy -- it does show a certain self-awareness in this task.
Still, the overriding message is not one of irony. While there are times when it feels as though Schrader will break through our pre-conceived wall around this subject, he struggles to escape the standard treatment that Holocaust narratives so often produce. Rather than emphasizing irony as a way to recontexualize the horrors of the Holocaust, Schrader, in the end, sticks to the heavy-handed and predictable approach.