Portraying Adolf Hitler on the screen is one of the trickiest of dramatic challenges, and while writer and first-time director Menno Meyjes has taken an intriguing back-door approach in this study of Hitler the failed artist, some central difficulties remain unsolved. An ambitious look at a wealthy Jewish art dealer’s tentative but sincere attempt to channel the bitter and resentful young Hitler’s bottled-up rage into his painting, “Max” plausibly depicts the future Fuehrer as a down-and-out World War I veteran who has yet to discover his true calling. But the film is ultimately too glib in its suggestion that Hitler’s discovering his career path was a matter of sheerest chance, even an accident. Making this a want-see among discerning audiences on the specialized circuit will pose a daunting task for Lions Gate.
Meyjes, who wrote the screenplay for “The Color Purple,” has in a thoughtful manner put quite a few interesting subjects at the center of this story that are rarely broached in feature films: The immediate post-war atmosphere that gave rise to avant-garde art in Europe; the simultaneous sense of hopelessness and limitless possibilities; German fury at the severely punitive terms of the Versailles treaty; the way in which many German Jews could feel more German than Jewish, and the seething anger that wastrels like Adolf Hitler felt toward wealthy, sophisticated Jewish families who seemed to have everything their way.
All of these issues inform the odd relationship — friendship is too strong a word — that springs up between Max Rothman and Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1918 after the German surrender. Rothman (John Cusack) has lost his right arm in combat and is therefore unable to pursue his ambition to paint, but he resumes the pleasures of his well-upholstered family life with wife Nina (Molly Parker) and cultured parents, as well as an ongoing affair with very young mistress Liselore (Leelee Sobieski).
Corporal Hitler (Noah Taylor), by contrast, is so destitute that he remains in the army just to cope. Disheveled, cranky and devoid of humor, Hitler encounters Rothman, a fictional figure though purportedly an amalgam of several actual men, at the latter’s large warehouse, which he is transforming into a fashionable gallery for modern art. Hitler expresses disdain for such radical movements as Dadaism and surrealism (although he expresses a certain interest in cubism), preferring art that for him expresses eternal and ennobling traditional values, but Rothman keeps pushing the painter of modest landscapes to reach down deep and put his convictions and passion on the canvas.At the same time, Hitler is exposed to anti-Jewish bile from numerous quarters, particularly from an army captain (Ulrich Thomsen) whose extreme views are like Nazi doctrine in the raw. Hitler responds instinctively to these rants that play easily into his sense of deprivation and jealousy, although he continues to deny to Rothman that he’s anti-Semitic.
Having failed to produce any paintings, Hitler nonetheless impresses Rothman with some striking sketches he’s made of insignias, uniforms, buildings and so on that bear marked similarity to subsequent Nazi designs. To Rothman, the swastika and the rest of it, at this stage devoid of any ideological baggage, constitute a giant art project representing an authentic vision of the future. (If only he knew…)
As Meyjes structures it, Hitler’s potential breakthrough into the art world precisely coincides with his first success as an orator. After some halting starts at public speaking, Hitler is asked to address a hall full of presumed anti-Semites. At first, it seems as though he doesn’t even know what he’s going to say, before he finally launches into a tirade against the Jews.
This crucial scene’s subtext seems to be that Hitler’s anti-Semitism is far more calculated than it is genuinely felt; he smells the mood of the crowd, indulges it, gets a boisterous response, and then plays it for all it’s worth. The purely fictional event that then climaxes the picture is designed to make the audience feel that, if it weren’t for a trick of fate, Hitler might indeed have become an artist.
Filmmaking style is steady, focused and unfussy, although Meyjes the director has allowed Meyjes the writer to include a few too many embarrassing and self-conscious lines in which Rothman has to introduce Hitler to others by name, and, worst of all, to have him say, “Hitler, let me take you for a lemonade.” A more hauntingly poetic ending providing a sense of chill about the future would also have been helpful in redeeming the miscalculations of the climactic events.
Another problem is varying accents, which range from American to English to German and Middle European in the cases of many supporting actors, and to an odd sort of Cockney/German in the case of Taylor’s Hitler. Unkempt, unclean and ill-mannered, this is Hitler the loser, the misfit; the man betrayed, then ignored by history. Taylor does a very good job conveying Hitler’s discomfort, anxieties and belligerence, and adds nice moments of vanity that quietly convey the unappetizing looking man’s ongoing attempts to assess how to project an effective image of himself. Yet it’s not a complete portrait, as it seems caught in an inescapable zone somewhere between caricature and genuine characterization.
Exhibiting more gravity than he has before, Cusack effectively puts over Rothman’s robust enthusiasm for the new artistic horizons he sees opening up, as well as his deeply buried regret over his inability to be one of the artists himself.
There’s no stuffiness or self-consciousness about the period evocation, nicely accomplished on Budapest locations and through Ben Vanos’ production design. All design particulars, from Lajos Koltai’s lensing and Dien Van Straalen’s costumes to the representations of new art at the time, have been tended to convincingly.