max (2003)


director: menno meyjes

john cusack, noah taylor, molly parker, leelee sobieski

The title character of Menno Meyjes’ film Max, a Jewish art dealer played by John Cusack, didn’t actually exist, but the other major character in the film did, though Meyjes might have been pushing his luck if he'd called his film Adolf.

Cusack’s Max Rothman is a one-armed veteran of the Austro-Hungarian army, just about to lose the First World War as the film begins. Max is a former artist whose passion for the new and the modern has been channeled into a career selling the radical, confrontational work emerging from the horrors of the war. Adolf Hitler, played by Noah Taylor, is also an artist and a veteran, albeit one without Max’s education, wit, looks, taste, or family money.

After a chance meeting, Max takes pity on the embittered fellow former soldier and encourages him to channel his rage and frustration into his work, and not the rabidly anti-Semitic street politics that, along with modern art, are finding fertile ground in the traumatized new world after the war. It’s a fantastic premise, based on a question that’s been asked a million times in the last fifty years: What if Hitler had never enterered politics, had never applied his unique and terrible talents to the Nazi party?

Meyjes’ challenge is to let us see that moment when an awful future was still unwritten, when Adolf Hitler wasn’t the most loaded and fraught name in the whole of recent history. As played by Taylor, Hitler is uniquely pitiable, utterly loathesome but - maybe because we find ourselves hoping against the inevitable - barely redeemable. A historically monstrous megalomania is still only a grossly exaggerated self-pity, but Taylor and Meyjes do their best to let us see where it all began.

As Max, Cusack is less vivid, perhaps because he’s playing something of a cipher. Max is both passionate and cynical, exhuberant and depressed, loyal and deceitful - cheating on his wife (Molly Paker) with a beautiful artist (Leelee Sobieski). His loyalty to the repellent Hitler - motivated by guilt, among other things - is only the most confused aspect of his personality. Max is a character made to be broken, and Hitler is the instrument of that breaking.

Max, the film, might have felt more satisfying if there felt like a chance that either Max - or Hitler - stood a chance of escaping their fate. And that, ultimately, is the terrible flaw of any attempt to make a film about Adolf Hitler.