If Adam Resurrected were any better a film, it would have the potential to be actively offensive, as opposed to merely tiresome and baffling. Between Jeff Goldblum's wildly over-mannered performance and the schlocky treatment of serious subject matter, it's hard to know whether to simply dismiss the film or be outraged by it. Dismissal is likely the better option.
The film is adapted from Yoram Kaniuk's controversial 1968 novel, which was one of the first works of literature to deal in a serious manner with the repercussions of the Holocaust. The controversy is not that surprising, given that it's about a German Jewish performer, Adam Stein (Goldblum), interred at a concentration camp where he entertains other prisoners to keep them docile on their way to the extermination chamber, where his family is sent while he fiddles away; not much noble uplift or moral condemnation to be seen. Stein, a clownish old cabaret emcee whose dizzying intellect matches his taste for mayhem, later ends up a madman in a fanciful high-tech asylum for survivors in the Israeli desert where he plays court jester to the other inmates and indulgent therapists. He also likes reenacting some of the worst aspects of his treatment in the camps, whether on his dusky-eyed nurse-lover or the newest patient, a young boy raised to believe he's a dog.
Initially it seems that Adam Resurrected has taken just the right slant on its cockeyed story. The existential despair and post-traumatic anguish of Holocaust survivors is dealt with via a mordant sense of humor, dancing on the verge of catastrophe. Stein is the embodiment of this outlook, being a man who lost his family to Nazi butchers while he himself was forced, not just to entertain them and others before their deaths, but to literally live as a dog (eating from a bowl, talking in barks, living on all fours) for the amusement of the camp's commandant, Klein (Willem Dafoe). As Stein, Goldblum throws everything into the mix, using magic tricks, dance moves, and high-velocity yammering double-talk delivered in a frenetic half-English, half-German pidgin.
This sort of barbed psycho-comedy is problematic enough for a novel to deal with, but in a film -- particularly one directed with as little subtlety as Paul Schrader has brought to the task at hand -- it quickly turns into a distasteful train wreck. A novel like Kaniuk's might have the ability to take a scene like the one in which Stein makes the nurse transform herself into a dog, just as Klein did with him, and use it to plumb the spiritual anguish that his torment in the camps has plunged him into. A novel written with sufficient skill could illustrate the cycle of abuse that more abuse engenders. In Schrader's film, however, the scene is just ludicrous, a bad joke that seems to be played for a cheap turn-on.
Schrader, working from a script by Noah Stollman, mostly appears to have the right intentions here. The film is not so much exploitative as it is dull and unimaginative. Stein could have been transformed by Goldblum (who it must be said, tries his best here) into one of the more memorable heroic lunatics of film history, the clowning nut with a choked-back cry in his throat and death on his mind, an ironic rejoinder to the sentimental fools of Life is Beautiful and the infamous, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried. But in a scattered effort such as this, Goldblum's dance seems more desperate than anything else, a failed attempt to wring meaning out of disaster, both creative and historical.