Germany after World War I, devastated by defeat and economic collapse, gave birth to some of the greatest heights in art history with Expressionism and the Dadaist movement. It also conceived and plumbed the most horrific depths of the human condition. German-Jewish art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack) is a witness to the beginnings of both. He sees the future in the ideas and inventions of modern art; he also sees its shadow in the fate of a young artist, Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor).
Written and directed by Menno Meyjes (the man who penned the screenplay for The Color Purple), Max is an attempt to peel away the monster from the human being that Hitler once must have been. Meyjes calls his mix of fact and fiction a “historical fable.” It’s true that Hitler was a failed artist and architect, turned down by the Vienna Art Academy. And it’s also true that in the months following World War I, this unknown soldier began a political rise to power that would threaten to take over the world. Max, on the other hand, is a Meyjes-made amalgamation of 1919 Munich’s artistic milieu. He lost his arm — and his ability to make art — for his country, but he’s still enmeshed in the avant-garde as an art dealer.
As Max, John Cusack exudes a doomed, eloquent charm. His baby face now has a hard edge to it, an innocence lost, and that look feeds directly into Max’s embodiment of a disillusioned-yet-hopeful aesthetic, sticking the only arm he has left into what he loves. And Noah Taylor’s face could have been plucked out of an Egon Schiele painting, with its expressionistic, gaunt and extreme peculiarities. As a young Hitler who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t eat meat, doesn’t date and doesn’t take criticism well, Taylor is awkward, brash and far from likable, yet able to trigger a verboten curiosity and suspend the great weight of history from crushing his character.
There are many ways to look at Max. He’s a historical parlor game for a film to play with and/or he’s a much-needed chimerical clue to unlock one of the deadliest riddles of humanity. He’s a character, written today, going back in time, innately knowing what we know and trying to save Hitler from himself — but the closer he gets to him, the more he encourages the making of a monster. If you look at the film literally, you could reduce it to an absurd “one art show given to an insignificant corporal could have saved the world from the Holocaust.” But that would be like glossing over a George Grosz painting of a man with a mechanical heart because men don’t actually have such things.
Allegorically, Max and Adolf are two sides of the same country, both ravaged veterans of the battle of Ypres, both trying to find their artistic voice in the rubble-strewn aftermath. But Max, a German Jew, lives in wealth, culture and the security of an intact family, while on the outside, scrambling for a means and a meal, is Adolf, lustfully looking in on Max’s aesthetics and affluence. The closest thing Hitler has to a family is the army. In the film, the army — represented by the blond Aryan-ideal, Captain Mayr (Ulrich Thomsen) — gives Hitler food and a place to sleep. Mayr surrounds him with anti-Semitic dialogue and encourages the forceful young man to take a course in a new kind of science — propaganda.
In its post-World War I state of chaos, Germany had the potential to rise out of the ashes in many directions, but the Treaty of Versailles — slapping Germany with a 20-million mark debt and the “War Guilt Clause” — was like grinding salt into an already festering wound. Max depicts Hitler teetering between art and its antithesis, the army. But being an artist requires the courage to delve into the darkest corners of your soul, and following the army’s anti-Semitic ideology only requires a finger to point with.
Max is an art project — a moving portrait beautifully executed, lyrically thought out, using imaginary and devilish media in its attempt to capture an economic atmosphere and the emotional circumstances of a people turning in on themselves. Maybe the one truth everyone can take away from Max is that Hitler, like any human being, had choices, and something (probably a combination of somethings) made him choose a hellish path. Like any good artist, Meyjes was brave enough to explore some of the darkest regions of human history, manifesting an alternative take on a treacherous birth.
Max pokes, provokes, takes expressionistic license and hits a nerve that’s apparently been causing a polarizing reaction in all directions. As far as art is concerned, its mission accomplished.
Showing exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, S. of Maple, Birmingham — 248-644-3456) and the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor — 734-668-8480).
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].