Max proposes a number of “What If?” questions about the possibility of 20th Century history turning out a different way in a mostly fictionalised, part accurate account of Adolf Hitlers’ early years. The largest “What If?” of all in Max has to be, what happens if one of history’s most reviled figures is planted in the lead role of a film? Cleverly the filmmakers decided to counter-act the negativity of any outward Hitler connotations with the casting of John Cusack. The film is only incidentally about the genesis of Nazi empire building, and much more about the relationship between two men, who share a lot in common but are divided in many more resounding ways, and on issues that become increasingly impossible to reconcile.
Cusack brings his all his charisma and verbal poise to the eponymous Max Rothman, a Jewish art dealer who trades in contemporary Avant-garde expressionism. Rothman has returned to a depleted and broken Germany after World War One, disillusioned with his ill fortune (having lost an arm in the hostilities effectively extinguishing his own career as an artist) but resourceful and privileged enough to return to a semblance of the life he had pre-1914.
Rothman struggles to sell work from a disused factory space, an entrepreneur and a romancer; he frequently delights the local dignitaries with his wit and charm. He balances the cosy home-life of an affluent man with passionate encounters in the studio of his bohemian mistress (Leelee Sobieski), so committed to the artists’ life that she burns a fire in the middle of her bedroom for warmth. Into Max’s complicated yet comfortable life walks an angry young man bitter at his predicament and looking to apportion blame. “Hitler, Adolf Hitler” he adroitly states in a tone more reminiscent of James Bond than the marauding enemy of the free world. Well who said the Devil never had charisma?
As it turns out, he really doesn’t have any, that’s all reserved for Cusack, naturally. Hitler is portrayed by the iron-deficient Noah Taylor as a snapping bag of nerves, driven by petulant self-deceit and puritanical values. Hitlers’ self-discipline is summarised in the mantra: “No caffeine, no nicotine, no alcohol, no meat”, this he sticks to, despite Rothman’s best efforts to the contrary. Coiled ever tightly around his bitterness and a twisted, newly emerging worldview, he is encouraged to lessen the grip by Rothman, who senses much of the same damaging resentment that he himself is wrestling with, and trying hard to conceal. Rothman begins by humouring the artistic leanings of the future dictator after witnessing his depictions of life in the trenches. Competent technique is not matched with an original vision and Hitler is sent back to the canvas, only this leads to an ever-growing interest in agitational public speaking. Hitler vents his spleen with increasing confidence, goaded on by the complicit anti-Semitism that is rife in large pockets of German society (including his army regiment who indulge nightly in lazy dormitory racism) looking to pin blame.
Psychological scars driven deep by the experiences of war are manifested very differently by the two men. Hitler, under Rothmans’ tutelage, attempts to express himself in more immediate ways, and subsequently finds himself to be frustratingly impotent in front of a blank canvas, which soon manifests itself in public displays of vitriol. Hitler becomes increasingly estranged from the paintbrush and ever more drawn to the soapbox. In contrast, one scene shows Rothman longingly pouring over old pieces of his own work in private, which soon inspires a new, satirical performance piece more reminiscent of 1960’s America than 1930’s Germany, in which he indicts the powers-that-be as little more than a meat grinder, churning up innocents in the pursuit of political dominance, Hitler is disgusted by this.Both men find different ways to shoehorn their angst into something external, with contrasting implications that precipitate an estrangement in their already uneasy relationship.
Max is a curious muddle of elements and themes, some real some imaginary, that blend together remarkably well. The film frees itself of the shackles of historical accuracy by fictionalising the majority of the narrative, and many of the characters, including Rothman himself, but drawing on real events and contemporary emotions. This is most evident in the reaction of betrayal at the declaration of Germanys’ humiliation at Versailles. It reaches even further by presenting a figure of iconic status, overloaded with negativity and setting the audience the task of empathising with him. Subsequently we feel with him, laugh with him (and at him) and begin to partially understand him. The historical information the audience brings to the film is dissected playfully. Throwaway comments and insignificant character traits (such as Hitlers’ love of animals) are suddenly loaded with symbolism that strikes an emotional chord. At one point Hitler relates to Rothman his desire to: “teach in the future”, statements so pregnant with portentous meaning punctuate events resoundingly. Max will inevitably ruffle feathers, but it makes for brave cinema and interesting viewing.
The film occasionally lapses into self-parody, particularly in the third act, and it occasionally tries too hard to encompass 20th century art history in a nutshell. References to Marcel Duchamp, Frederick Nietzche and the Italian Futurists are all woven into Hitlers’ artistic ethos, even though he claims to be an anti-modernist. The film works most effectively as a character study, emphasised in the scenes Cusack and Taylor share. At times it is like watching the coolest kid in school suddenly taking the complete loser under his wing, in an altruistic desire to tempt him with the finer things in life.
The tagline of Max: Art + Politics = Power should read more like: Art and Politics don’t mix. The clashes of ideology, as personified in two widely different individuals are played out with wit and poignancy. The contradictory nature of their relationship, seemingly headed on a collision course, is both tragic and amusing. In every sense, Max is an entertaining portrait of The Dictator as a Young Artist.
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