Director: Menno Meyjes
Cast: John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Molly Parker, Ulrich Thomsen
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 12/27/02 (limited); 1/24/03 (wide)
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Review by Mark Dujsik
They are the flip sides of a coin, Max Rothman (John Cusack) and Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). Both are German born and raised. Both fought in the Great War. Both are angered by the way the German government has appeased the world by agreeing the Versailles Treaty. Both love art. Then there are the differences. Max is intellectually driven; Hitler is emotionally driven. Max is a modernist; Hitler is a purist. Max lost an arm in the war and can no longer paint; Hitler still serves as a Corporal and uses his experiences to recreate the battlefield faithfully. Max returned from the war to money, family, and a mistress; Hitler came back to nothing. Max is a fictional, Jewish art dealer and gallery owner, and Hitler is the most infamous anti-Semite in history. Screenwriter and first-time director Menno Meyjes’ Max is an intelligent and utterly compelling hypothetical question in which scholarly musings and dramatic irony come together to create a powerful, thought-provoking experience.
It is 1918 in Munich, and the war on the front has ended—it’s the politicians’ turn. Ideas of art are changing. Technique and form are no longer apropos; the new art is about emotion and personal perspective. Max is a strong supporter of these new movements. So when a young artist and fellow soldier named Adolf Hitler walks into Max’s warehouse-turned-art-gallery (in keeping with the modernist spirit) and shows a worthwhile technique and subject matter, he comments that what’s missing is “an authentic voice.” Hitler manages to capture the look, but Max wants him to go deeper—to show what it felt like to be there in combat. With all the things he acknowledges he lacks, the one thing Hitler thought he possessed was artistic ability. For whatever reason, perhaps the detection of a kindred spirit, recognition of potential, or just good, old-fashioned guilt, Max takes Hitler under his wing. On the other side of the fence, a mentor in the army named Captain Mayr (Ulrich Thomsen) sees other kinds of potential for Hitler, mainly involving propaganda, a new, revolutionary form of politics.
One of the key elements to this story is what the audience already knows will happen, but the way Meyjes has established his scenario, we begin to feel as though anything could happen. Meyjes establishes the period throughout the film. We come to understand the ideas about which Max is talking. The political backdrop is set up just enough so that there’s an overriding tension of dissatisfaction and rebellion permeating throughout. Class, race, and creed are united in dissonance. When Hitler dismisses anti-Semitism that comes from emotions and states it should only come from rationalization, his true colors start to show, and the unspoken tension finally comes to the surface. This is a time of terrible revolution waiting to happen, and we’re witnessing the man in charge of it all slowly but surely forming into the brutal ruler he will (and should) always be remembered. Meyjes wisely doesn’t limit the conflict to race, and as a result, there’s a genuine feeling of a specific time and place established. This is also greatly helped by Lajos Koltai’s stark and alternately bright cinematography and Ben van Os’ production design, which gives us two different worlds—the opulent and the war-torn. When these two looks and worlds are brought together but still divided in the final shot, it opens up an en entirely new way of considering the film.
And this is a complex film—one that’s worth putting some considerable thought into—not because it talks about ideas but because it allows those ideas to play out within the story’s structure as it progresses. Although the film would seem to have the makeup and impact of a historical or character study, it doesn’t. This is more of a concept study. It’s not what the characters mean on their own but the way in which they interact and influence each other that’s important. Meyjes develops Max and Hitler only enough to show how different they are in ideals. They do not exist on their own terms, which helps explain why the other relationships in Max’s life are not developed as much (particularly in his relationship with his wife and mistress, played by Molly Parker and Leelee Sobieski respectively). These two men are the personification of their ways of thinking in conflict and the conflict within these ways of thinking. Then there’s Hitler, who exists as a walking talking conflict in the film. He’s torn between two possibilities. Both show his creativity, but one channels it positively and the other channels it the ways things actually turn out.
The two lead performances are exceptional. John Cusack gives one of his best performances in a role he doesn’t typically play. There are a lot of emotions bubbling under Max’s calm, collected public mask, but he can only intellectualize it. Of particular interest is a scene in which Max puts on a performance art piece that expresses his feelings on his country and the way they handled the war effort. The scene exists on its own terms and shows that Max isn’t quite successful an artist, even if he knows how to talk it. Most importantly for Cusack, we believe him in his academic musings about art and philosophy. Noah Taylor is, to put it bluntly, haunting. He starts off a timid, scared man with a quiet voice and unmistakable speech pattern and later turns into the embodiment of Hitler during his speeches—the mad dog ferocity, the forceful and fixed gestures, and the hateful prose shouted with frightening relish.
When Max and Hitler sit down and talk, it’s merely the beginning. Max is a fascinating film that has the power to stick with you. It leaves one considering the overwhelming influence of words, ideas, and suggestion, the power that staggering coincidence, or maybe even fate, can have over the potential, unreleased power of lost opportunity, and of course that one big, regretful question, “What if?”
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.