review by Elias
Savada, 10 January 2003
1918. What if 30-year-old Adolf Hitler, suffering, like the rest of
post World War I Germany, under the economical-social-political
defeatist weight of the Treaty of Versailles, actually nurtured his
fascistic artistic inclinations instead of adopting the infant
political ideology of National Socialism as his new art form. Even
the Jews were ashamed to be German when this document was signed.
screenwriter Menno Meyjes (The
Color Purple, plus Indiana
Jones and the Last Crusade, Empire
of the Sun, and The Siege)
has sat down in the director's hot seat for the first time with what
is sure to be one of the most discussed films of the year-end
season, and then some. Fashioning such a serious film around one of
history's most despicable rulers will guarantee an aura of
controversy not seen since then 95-year-old Leni Riefenstahl, the
filmmaker responsible for the quintessential, powerful Third Reich
documentary Triumph of the
Will and a close friend of Hitler, was honored with a
life-achievement award at the 1997 Cinecon, a extended L.A.-based
Labor Day Weekend gathering of film buffs who celebrate film history
with screenings and personal appearances.
sensible people today don't envision Adolf Hitler as a human being
at all. He's barely one in Max.
Meyjes has crafted a fictionalized account of a social outcaste that
is far from sentimental, as depicted by Noah Taylor (Shine).
The director-writer actually has sketched out what passes for
revisionist history, albeit one with the same tragic outcome.
Taylor, the actor, disappears within the role of a sniffling
Corporal Hitler, becoming such an incredibly troubled creature and
allowing himself to wander across an emotional minefield that will
have audiences transfixed, outraged and shell-shocked. Taylor's
gaunt, tattered appearance and pre-Satanic interpretation (Hitler
doesn't smoke, drink—alcoholic or coffee, or eat meat) will
undoubtedly earn him horrifying glances on the street and accolades
from his peers.
embodiment of the tortured psyche of Germany's future Führer as a
disoriented, starving artist begins with his search for income and
inspiration, and quickly finds him the unlikely, yet distant,
acquaintance of art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack). The urban,
sophisticated German-Jew helps the homeless soldier with food,
lodging, and the nurturing of an attentive mentor, perhaps trying to
elicit such artwork that Rothman is no longer capable of creating,
having lost his drawing arm in the war. The film follows the mental
blood-poisoning of both student and teacher. Their relationship,
barely friendly, is followed by a grudgingly fluid camera and
desolate score. Rothman has his own financial, physical, and
emotional insecurities. Strong-willed wife (Molly Parker), children,
and wealthy in-laws at home; beautiful, envious mistress (Leelee
Sobieski as Liselore Von Peltz) on the side; and business in the
also an associate producer, has crafted one of his boldest
performances as the chain-smoking Rothman. Admired for his darkly
comic characters (Being John Malkovich, Grosse
Pointe Blank, The Grifters),
his performance here does have at least one bleakly funny moment, in
which he has an interesting conversation about tapeworms and the
weather while dining with his wife and her slightly ditsy parents.
give you the wrong impression, Max
is a real tongue-depressor. It'll make you gag. The film is
definitely an unsympathetic mood piece about the post-war malaise.
Impoverished soldiers back from the front call up their Aryan
strength at the beckoning of the persuasive Captain Mayr (Ulrich
Thomsen), who instills in his vulnerable men some good,
old-fashioned anti-Semitism to focus their attention away from the
hard times. Hitler is the hardest convert ("I don't believe in
emotive anti-Semitism"), whose principles on the subject are
based on fact. Its broader implications ought to be in the hands of
the government, he continues, "like public health or
sewage." The purity of the races and the hatred of the Jews
become flash points for Hitler (and datively, for Rothman),
particularly at a degrading puppet show authorized by Mayr that
indoctrinates these beliefs to his men, who laugh at an Aryan rape
as if a group of amused, obedient kindergartners.
Koltai is primarily responsible for film's decidedly drab, muddy
tone. As the director of photography of the much brighter The
Emperor's Club and Sunshine,
his work more closely resembles that which he orchestrated on
Giuseppe Tornatore's The
Legend of 1900, a compelling, ship-bound tale of a man and his
piano. The cold-to-the-touch production work of Ben Van Os (Peter
Greenaway's oft-used designer), especially the vast, leaking former
ironworks that now houses Rothman's low-rent gallery, and the sparse
score by Dan Jones, are equally impressive.
is an engrossing, repugnant, disturbing portrait of a dictator as a
young unknown artist. It is compelling.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult