review by Elias Savada, 10 January 2003

Munich, 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.

Oscar-nominated 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.

Most 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.

Taylor's 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 toilet.

Cusack, 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.

Not to 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.

Lajos 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.

Max is an engrossing, repugnant, disturbing portrait of a dictator as a young unknown artist. It is compelling.

Written and
Directed by:

Menno Meyjes

John Cusack
Noah Taylor
Leelee Sobieski
Molly Parker
Ulrich Thomsen

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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