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Photograph by Egon Endrenyi

Career Counseling: Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor, left) gets some painterly advice from gallery owner Max Rothman (John Cusack) in 'Max.'

Sympathy for the Devil

In 'Max,' John Cusack's art dealer befriends an unknown artist named Hitler

By Richard von Busack

THERE ARE few more compelling fantasies than the idea of getting a time machine and shooting Hitler. The Dutch-born director Menno Meyjes does that idea one better in Max. Meyjes hasn't quite worked out this fantasy completely, but Max is a film with a good, dangerous idea, and that gives it essential merit.

John Cusack plays Max Rothman, a rich German-Jewish artist who lost his painting arm during World War I. Now that the war is over and he's back in Munich, Max runs a gallery out of a leaky locomotive shed. He has yet-unrecognized thoroughbreds in his stable, including Max Ernst and George Grosz. (Grosz, true to his name, acts gross; his first deed in the movie is to projectile-vomit from too much booze.)

Despite the rowdies he attracts, Rothman is swathed in a comfy marriage (with a miscast Molly Parker). He also enjoys a mistress, played by the musky Leelee Sobieski. Unfortunately, we only get a few chances to see Sobieski's cutely debauched face. At one of his receptions, Max meets a struggling artist, a recently demobilized corporal and all-around insignificant shrimp named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). There's something about this proud reject that brings out Max's fatherly side, and he sponsors Adolf's attempts to paint.

The two are opposed, since Max is Jewish, and Adolf is a "scientific" anti-Semite ("Actually, I admire the Jews," he says). Max loves the world of the flesh; Hitler is a teetotaler vegetarian. Max, impressed, comments, "You're an aesthetic." Hitler mutters back, abashed, "I'm a man of the people."

Still, befriending Hitler proves to be a mistake; Adolf turns into a social embarrassment and a general pain. Worse, some ex-soldiers, particularly Capt. Mayr (Ulrich Thomsen), pressure the budding führer into public speaking. What the soldiers see in Hitler as a leader isn't apparent, at first. Even Max himself is more cautious about Hitler's abilities, always telling Adolf to dig deeper, in that maddeningly nonspecific way favored by teachers and editors.

Is Taylor a fan of the rock musician Iggy Pop? In the moment where Hitler becomes Hitler, Iggy seems be the model. Think of Iggy doing a song like "Dirt," about being under everyone's shoes, and how he rises up in a wall-shaking shout. Taylor shows how an unprepossessing short man can roar so that everyone listens.

Taylor makes Hitler strangely likable: a little guy all your dumbest movie-fed reflexes tell you to root for. Monster that he was, humanity was all over Hitler, as San Francisco's Jay Rosenblatt outlined in his 1998 documentary Human Remains. But no one wants to hear about Hitler's all-too-human side, and no wonder Cusack (who also co-produced) had such trouble getting the film financed.

In an otherwise cool and ironical performance, Cusack gives himself only one flamboyant moment, and even that comes with quotation marks. Max performs a hideously awkward piece of performance art--the kind where stuffed animals get ground up in a meat grinder. It's Max's way of expressing his rage at what World War I stole from him.

Max was obviously made cheap. Most of the action seems to be taking place in an empty warehouse. Today's Budapest stands in for 1917-18 Munich in the way, say, that Klaus Kinski might stand in for Adolphe Menjou. This city does look like an economically punished part of the old Soviet block. Strangely, the film only hints at the power of the Communists between the wars. Terror of the Reds helped Hitler find friends in high as well as low places. Also, Max is marred with a few awkward transitions and more than a few awkward anachronisms (such as Rothman telling someone who pesters him, "I gave at the office").

The film has a comedy inside fighting to get out, but Meyjes keeps the comic spirit imprisoned. The film has a predictable "But seriously, folks" conclusion, aimed at those of us who laughed at Hitler's misfortunes and sneakily felt sorry for the poor bastard. The finale serves up a predictable lesson to anyone who makes a pet out of a viper.

Max turns back the clock to a time before Hitler's crimes, showing him as a bum and a joke. It asks the question, What would be better than putting a bullet into Hitler? and answers cleverly, If we could have sat down with him in a cafe when he needed comfort and guidance, if we could talked him out of his madness long before he began to kill. It would have been a victory over Hitlerism, and it would have kept the blood off our hands, too.

Max (R; 108 min.), directed and written by Menno Meyjes, photographed by Lajos Koltai and starring John Cusack and Noah Taylor, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the January 23-29, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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