Always a Dictator 

Despite filmmaker’s best intentions, Adolf Hitler proves a distraction in Max

Despite filmmaker’s best intentions, Adolf Hitler proves a distraction in Max

The problem with putting Adolf Hitler in a movie that’s not ostensibly about Adolf Hitler is that whoever plays the future führer automatically steals any scene he’s in. He’s an inherent distraction, Hitler. In writer/director Menno Meyjes’ debut feature Max, the title character, played by John Cusack, is a Jewish art dealer in Munich circa 1918, immediately after World War I. He’s also a veteran of the German army, and when a fellow vet walks up and introduces himself as Adolf Hitler, one half-expects Cusack’s character to recoil and say, “Holy crap! Not the Adolf Hitler?”

Of course he’s not the Adolf Hitler yet, which is partly the point of Meyjes’ film. Noah Taylor plays the young Hitler as a bitter literalist with several layers of insecurity, the thickest of which regards his talent as a would-be painter. Cusack’s Max encourages him, spotting something visionary in Hitler’s sketches of a clean, realistically rendered and uncomplicated future society. As for Hitler’s already-in-bloom anti-Semitism, Max regards it as a quaint character flaw, attributable to a sheltered existence that Max aims to open up.

Meyjes leaves the question of Hitler’s hate more ambiguous. A handful of scenes show Hitler making inflammatory speeches on behalf of a fledgling nationalist party, but the character himself claims that his extreme position on “the Jewish question” is partly politically motivated. Later, when his painting career hits a dead end, Hitler implies that politics will be his new mode of artistic expression. The origin of Hitler The Madman proves complicated.

Max has been criticized—mostly by folks who haven’t seen the film—for trying to “humanize” a genocidal dictator, but that’s not really Meyjes’ game. And even if it was, an attempt to understand the psyche and motivations of an evil maniac might be a useful endeavor. Certainly, we’ve seen enough movies about the mentality of superhuman serial killers; why not one that has some practical application in the real world, where murderers and sociopaths sometimes ascend to high public office?

More intriguing is the way that Meyjes illustrates the moral relativism that took hold between the wars in Europe, particularly in the art world. A generation disillusioned by the apparent pointlessness of World War I descended into decadence and cynicism, and in the movie’s most stunning moment, Meyjes pulls the camera up into the sky over a typical Munich neighborhood and reveals that the residents have a swastika pattern already stamped on their muddled lives.

But the filmmaker could’ve made this same point without having Hitler as an actual lead character in the story. As good as Taylor and Cusack are in Max, they can’t punch through Meyjes’ drab atmosphere and enervated pacing, much of which is a result of the sobriety required for any story with Hitler as a major player. And despite all that heaviness, Max is still unintentionally goofy at times, when it’s not unsettling. No matter how noble the attempt, there may just be no way to make a good movie about a guy palling around with Hitler.

—Noel Murray

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