- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

When "Max" premiered in September at the Toronto Film Festival, controversy erupted immediately: How dare anyone humanize Adolf Hitler?
Fortunately, the furor has subsided, and although the early and concluding episodes are grievously miscalculated, a bit of patience with a talented and resourceful group of filmmakers discloses a character study that proves more provocative and eloquent than most.
Writer-director Menno Meyjes has chosen to speculate about the personality of Hitler not the Hitler who ruled and ruined Germany, but Hitler at age 30, an obscure and embittered former noncommissioned officer in the German army, living at a barracks right after World War I, brooding about what to do with himself.
The film imagines this Hitler torn between two possibilities: resuming an abandoned career as a painter or illustrator and pursuing a new one as a political agitator, encouraged by reactionary Army officers in Munich, circa 1918.
In "Max," this Hitler played as a somewhat ridiculous figure of seething willfulness and resentment by Noah Taylor, the young Australian actor who impersonated the teenage David Helfgott in "Shine" is the maladjusted secondary presence.
The title character, named Max Rothman, a part that gives John Cusack a foothold on maturity and sophistication, is completely fictional. He has been suggested by various people in the Berlin art world who may have crossed paths with Hitler in the years before World War I, when he systematically attempted to make a living with his sketches and paintings.
Rothman also is a demobilized soldier, a former officer who lost his right arm in combat, terminating his prewar career as a painter. A man of means, Rothman is surrounded by a large and affectionate Jewish family. He also is amorously overbooked, with an attractive wife played by Molly Parker, who dances, and an attractive mistress played by Leelee Sobieski, who paints.
The character contrast is plain: Rothman is a damaged man who still has tangible social advantages and a lot to live for; Hitler is a damaged man who threatens to remain dangerously solitary and spiteful.
Rothman becomes an art dealer and impresario. He acquires an abandoned factory and uses it as a fashionable showcase for work that impresses him as modern, vivid and idiosyncratic. He reacts to the losses of the war by embracing the present, indiscriminately to some extent. He's willing to provide a haven for art movements that seem outrageous or scabrous.
Hitler drops by, grudgingly, with a portfolio. Though Rothman isn't particularly drawn to the work, which he regards as outmoded, he does take a perverse liking to the attitude of loner, misfit and malcontent that radiates from the man.
The men talk and argue enough for Rothman to sense that he might be in a position to influence an otherwise lost soul. He knows Hitler is an anti-Semite and apprentice political organizer and speaker. Estranged from politics himself, Rothman suggests that art might be a superior vehicle of self-expression or merely self-therapy.
Obviously, this guy Hitler has a lot of free-floating bile; Rothman advises him to get it on canvas in some form, without worrying much about what form. In an exceptionally witty sequence, we watch Mr. Taylor try to take this advice and smear the canvas in a spirit of impulsive liberation. He can't do it. He's a control freak who feels more confident about imposing himself in oratorical settings. Mass organizing promises forms of gratification that the art studio can't touch.
Mr. Meyjes takes quite a few liberties to sustain the pretense of a temporary bond between Rothman and Hitler. It would make more sense if Rothman were based in Berlin, but Munich did become Hitler's base of operations after World War I, so the movie is historically accurate to settle there. However, the aspiring artist in Hitler may not have survived the war years. Mr. Meyjes needs to imagine him as still wavering between vocations after the war, something of a historic whopper.
It is dramatically effective within this framework to maintain an a historic hope that Rothman's arguments might be persuasive. It's even humorously satisfying to hear this exasperated man of the world react to Hitler's mulish and fanatic tendencies by exclaiming, in so many words, "Snap out of it." In some respects, Mr. Meyjes trumps the sarcastic postmortem relationship with Hitler that one has come to regard as a Mel Brooks specialty.
Mr. Meyjes also seems exceptionally knowing about currents of opinion and tendencies in art that were prevalent in the years after World War I. "Max" reflects a smarter historical-cultural perspective than one customarily finds at the movies. Unfortunately, this erudition doesn't preclude some arbitrary distortions, and it doesn't prevent the filmmaker from wretched excess in the denouement, as if he were overcompensating for the fact that Hitler's crimes remain outside the scope of this particular "what-if?" pretext. Anyway, "Max" lowers the boom on itself while trying to cook up a suitably ominous fade-out.
(Occasional profanity and graphic violence; thematic allusions to anti-Semitism, circa 1918 in Germany, with Adolf Hitler as a principal character)
Written and directed by Menno Meyjes.
108 minutes

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