Max (2002)

D: Menno Meyjes
S: John Cusack, Noah Taylor

Slash fiction writ large and featuring the most unlikely of characters upon which to speculate in a fantasy scenario. Writer and director Menno Meyjes' film is set in Weimar Germany where Jewish art dealer John Cusack (High Fidelity) is pushing back the boundaries of convention with displays of modernist art. Still suffering inside from a war wound which has cost him his own ability to paint, he is interested in promoting new and radical forms of expression in a society which has lost its sense of direction. Among his new prospects is an intense young man, a sunken-eyed demobbed army corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler (portrayed by Noah Taylor). Hitler's art is literalist, technically competent but lacking passion. The art dealer, named Max, becomes fascinated by the young man, who is obviously burning up inside with anger and frustration. Max hopes to bring out his hidden depths on canvas, assuring him that if he gives vent to what he is feeling, his art may break boundaries. Hitler tries, but is unable to embrace the aesthetic paradigm shift. He finds politics a more effective means of expression when, encouraged by conservative elements within the army, he takes to making speeches at rallies for a movement seeking to restore order to the disorder and give vent to the frustrations of those who feel disenfranchised by the bohemianism of the Weimar Republic.

Max is an interesting film, though some may find the subject matter distasteful. Why, though? Was Hitler a mythical monster sprung wholly formed from the imagination of Lucifer? Or was he a man, a product of his time, his family, and his personal psychology whose path to madness was gradual and informed by others? It is so much easier to believe the former, when the latter only reminds us that Hitler was once very much like any of us, until choices and circumstances catapulted him to a position of power.Max does not attempt to absolve Hitler of the crimes against humanity for which he is justly remembered, it just puts him in a context which the director wishes to explore. It is not an inappropriate context either. The schism between post-war modernism and fascism is certainly one way to envision the environment in which he became politically active, and the character's eventual declaration that politics is the new art is an apt one in defining the twentieth century, where 'high' art indeed did seem to vanish from the public consciousness and enter the realm of abstraction (though how then might we explain Picasso's 'Guernica'?). Setting the emergence of Hitler's political sensibility in this environment, and focusing his sense of disillusionment upon a Jewish character, Meyjes is not a million miles away from the facts, many of them as he may have chosen to omit.

Thankfully, the film is more than a high-concept in-joke though. Hauntingly photographed by Lajos Koltai, well acted by the leads and others in support, it is a solidly crafted drama in its own right; not stunning, perhaps, but serviceable enough to hold together around its central precept. It is not a political film in the strictest sense of the genre, though it is concerned with politics as a subject. It is more a character piece in which politics play an important role, though mostly as relief to the psychological and aesthetic issues which are really at its heart. The film is about a connection between two people whose worlds are interlinked yet oppositional, and about how in spite of attempts to draw closer, they are doomed to remain apart, with tragic results on more than one level.

Cusack is his usual commanding self, registering his character on several levels of sympathetic complexity. Suave and faintly arrogant at first, Max emerges as a rounded person as much concerned with the issues facing German society as any politician. His own personal frustration and sense of empathy with Hitler is unclouded by their differences, which is not to say he is unaware of them. Like many people in Germany of that time, Max cannot foresee the lengths to which Hitler will take their differences though, nor can he distinguish passion from madness. In the end it is more the class divide which truly separates them, again a not wholly inappropriate reading of the situation. It is a problem only from the point of view of the Hitler character though, whose ravings on the subject of Jewish capitalism in public are a counterpoint to his attempt to forge a professional relationship with Max in private. Difference, as always, is a matter of perception, and the tragedy at the centre of the film is one of a failure to achieve an accommodation between divergent interpretations of humanity's purpose.

Taylor was faced with a difficult task in playing Hitler, though Meyjes has given him plenty to work with. The fissures in the character's personality reveal weakness and insecurity, traits as likely to elicit sympathy as disgust. As represented in this film, Hitler is not entirely unsympathetic, which is to say his response to the situation in which he finds himself is explained in context. Yet Taylor is able to also show the edges of madness, the frustrated adolescence of this adult character and represent his descent into politics as the opposite of what he perceives it to be. Even Max misunderstands what Hitler has done when he finally clicks with a coherent futurist vision of society drawn from ancient iconography, seeing his elaborate sketches of Nazi banners and architecture as a kind of ironic modernism when it is clearly nothing of the sort. There is a sense of hesitation in the character as played by Taylor and represented by Meyjes, yet there is an inevitability to his failure to embrace otherness which is drawn from the drama as well as the history upon which it speculates.

Max is a thought-provoking film, and though not revolutionary, it is daring in tackling the subject it does, which makes it worthwhile cinema. It doesn't all work, and there are those who may find the whole thing too offensive to even begin to engage with, but there are less well made and more thoughtless films out there which promote fascism without ever having to represent or mention Hitler. At least this film raises questions, and if those questions are disturbing precisely because they make us wonder how a man becomes a monster, that is all to the better. If his monstrosity is glimpsed only in passing, it makes it even more chilling and appropriate for us to realise that, as Jean Cayrol remarked in the holocaust documentary Night & Fog, the beast far from buried in the rubble.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.