- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

It may seem like only yesterday, but this is John Cusack's 20th anniversary year as a movie performer. Now 36, he first caught moviegoers' attention in 1984 as one of Anthony Michael Hall's nerdy high school buddies in John Hughes' debut feature, "Sixteen Candles." As Max Rothman, the title character of "Max," a provocative character study that asks what Adolf Hitler might have been like if encountered in Munich in 1918, Mr. Cusack appears to relish the meaty, grown-up role.
A fictional creation suggested by some of the Jewish art-world figures whose paths might have crossed the young Hitler's in the years before and after World War I, Rothman is a sophisticate who makes a sincere, if eventually futile, effort to persuade this belligerent odd duck named Hitler, portrayed by Noah Taylor, that art might be a more rewarding pursuit than politics.
Once an aspiring painter, Rothman has lost his right arm in the war. He has substituted art dealing for painting and uses an abandoned factory to showcase anything that impresses him as distinctively modern and individualistic. Hitler's personality suits the Rothman criteria more than his sketches, which seem stilted and old-fashioned, but the association leads to a certain argumentative rapport before dire events separate the characters forever.
A first feature, "Max" was written and directed by Menno Meyjes, an Academy Award nominee as a screenwriter in 1985 for his collaboration on Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple." The Dutch-born Mr. Meyjes was an occasional writing instrument for Mr. Spielberg during the 1980s. He also shared writing credits on "Empire of the Sun" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." His most recent credit of note was Ed Zwick's terrorist thriller "The Siege."
He says the notion of retrieving Hitler at a point before he emerged as a political monster was prompted by a reading of Ron Rosenbaum's estimable historical study "Explaining Hitler," particularly a passage that quoted Albert Speer: "If you want to understand Hitler, you have to understand he was an artist first."
During a brief telephone encounter, which seems to find Mr. Cusack speaking from a secret hideaway in Los Angeles where he can converse only in a reluctant and often unintelligible whisper, the actor comments that he didn't think of Rothman as a bridge from younger to middle-aged roles, although it might indeed give him that option in the future. "I thought of it as a great opportunity all around," he says. "I thought it could be a film that people remembered for a long time."
Mr. Cusack believes he had first crack at the Rothman role and recalls "being ready to go as soon as I read it, although it took another two years before we started production." That was in Budapest, the hometown of producer Andras Hamori, who was persuaded at an early point that no other contemporary European city could simulate Munich of 1918 as effectively.
"Once involved," Mr. Cusack recalls, "I was very interested in who would play Hitler. As soon as I heard Noah Taylor mentioned, I felt even more enthusiastic. I thought he would be a fantastic piece of casting. I have a lot of respect for his work as an actor, and we have very similar tastes."
Born in England, Mr. Taylor grew up in Australia and played juvenile leads for director John Duigan in the 1980s in "The Year My Voice Broke" and "Flirting." He became known internationally in the Australian biopic that won an Academy Award for Geoffrey Rush, Scott Hicks' "Shine." Mr. Taylor played pianist David Helfgott as a tormented teenager.
Mr. Cusack professes a long-standing interest in the period depicted in "Max." His voice spikes on the exclamation, "Absolutely! I've always been fascinated by the period and the events that would have made a country as civilized as Germany susceptible to someone like Hitler. And not just the politics. The art history of the period as well.
"Max belongs to a time when many people really believed that art could save the world. I think we may have lost something kind of noble with the decline of that vision."
Rothman's missing arm was simulated by having Mr. Cusack's right arm pinned behind his back. "It changes your entire sense of your body," the actor remarks. "I began to overcompensate by leaning more to the right; I'd notice my hip sort of jutting out, as if my mind were urging it to correct for the sense of balance that's usually there, with my arm unbound."
The Toronto Film Festival hosted the world premiere of "Max" last September. At that time, a certain hostility was in the air about the very conception of the film, and the Anti-Defamation League went on record deploring it, a verdict that subsequently was reversed after officials saw the movie.
"I would say we're trying to do a great service," Mr. Cusack says, "by treating Hitler as a human-scaled figure rather than a demonic one. And that certainly is more justifiable in the time frame of this movie, when he's an obscure ex-soldier.
"It's been interesting, and I think some people would just prefer for the film to go away. We're not gonna let that happen, of course. I think the movie has enough oxygen to sustain some life in theatrical release, no matter what. People are seeing it and writing about it, including Op-Ed people. The subject matter helps take it outside the typical entertainment sphere."
According to Mr. Cusack, the marketing budget is so slim that he thinks it unlikely "Max," officially a 2002 release, will end up as a long-shot Academy Award nominee in one category or another. Nevertheless, best original screenplay for Mr. Meyjes remains an intriguing possibility, and we'll know on Tuesday. The Washington-area opening of "Max" this weekend enlarges the release to about 20 metropolitan markets, still a handful in major-studio terms.
"The politics of the Oscars are so kind of incredibly intense," Mr. Cusack muses. "I think we may have been a little late to the starting gate, and we won't have much of a publicity push at our backs. We did have enough to do a full-page ad with a lot of the great reviews. I guess that will have to go a long way."

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