"Max" (Lion's Gate), 108 minutes, R
Directed and written by Menno Meyjes
Max Rothman: John Cusack
Adolf Hitler: Noah Taylor
Liselore Von Peltz: Leelee Sobieski
What if Hitler and Churchill were better painters? (I thank art critic Joseph Phelan for raising this question.) Fortunately, Sir Winston painted for leisure and made the politics of freedom the focus of his career. (See his marvelous essay, "Painting as a Pastime.") Writer/Director Menno Meyjes of "Max" struggles with the question of what might have been, but the collective and considerable talents of all involved fail to measure up to the size of the needed canvas—the relationship between romanticism and politics, between German expressionism and the horrors of World War I, and, above all, the modern artist's attempt to become a god by creating his own universe.
Max Rothman (John Cusack) is a well-to-do Jewish art dealer in Munich who has lost his right arm in the service of his country. The trendy friend of Beckmann, Grosz, and other greats takes pity on his miserable fellow veteran of the trenches, the young Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). The bitter Hitler feels torn between careers in art and politics. Max sees some talent in the vain and hapless dweeb, who is starving for recognition but wants it on his own terms, as a novel type of romantic or classic artist. Thus Hitler rattles on about affirming "eternal values and natural laws"—that is, Darwinism. He is moralistic without having any moral substance. Similarly, Max speaks about Hitler "finding his authentic voice" and would advance his art career in part to wean him from his thuggish companions.
In the end, of course, a National Socialist official wins over Hitler's soul. He will use his rhetorical talents to "paint with people." Hitler crudely reflects the Nietzschean notion of creativity—both the artist and the political man attempt to create new worlds. Classical art, by contrast, realized its inferiority to even the best in man and to the divine. Despite his attempts to distance himself from disgusting modern tendencies in art, Hitler was profoundly part of those same trends. "I am the new avant-garde," the future FÃ¼hrer declares. Politics is the new art.
Thus "Max" has too much of the notion that Hitler wanted to be a tyrant "to come in from the cold" and enjoy a steady income. (Aristotle's pithy sketch of the tyrant is the epigraph of Allan Bullock's classic biography, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.) The film's daunting task is not helped by some howler lines, which bring to mind Mel Brooks' "The Producers": The art dealer Rothman sputters, "You're an awfully hard man to like." Hitler, in turn, says he would "kill for an art show."
This comedy calls to mind a play I saw almost 30 years ago in Cologne, called "Jenseits von Gut und Boese" ("Beyond Good and Evil"). In this imaginative piece, Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Liszt show up at Hitler's wedding to Eva Braun, the night before their suicide in the bunker. Liszt plays his music maniacally, and Nietzsche falls into deeper despair upon hearing his aphorisms trumpeted by Nazis. At play's end, I had the unsettling experience of applauding, along with the rest of the audience, "Hitler" as he came for his curtain call. I could understand why my peers, young German students, would have preferred not to know what their parents did during the war. Of course, their fathers all fought on the eastern front. Little wonder that a Joschka Fischer could come out of this milieu.