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Max (R)
Lions Gate
Official Site
Directors: Menno Meyjes
Producer: Andras Hamori
Written by: Menno Meyjes
Cast: John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski

Rating: out of 5

Max is ostensibly not about its titular character, a Jewish art dealer (played by, of all people, John Cusack), but rather about the young Adolf Hitler: portrait of the young dictator as an artist. Such a challenge to the viewer to temporarily suspend all knowledge of actual history cannot be issued without a certain amount of trepidation, since to make a movie about Hitler without having him at the absolute center of events questions the purpose of the project and reduces it to a potential gimmick. Fortunately, Menno Meyjes’ directorial debut isn’t a total embarrassment, as might be expected to result when the writer of The Color Purple tackles a huge loop of revisionist history. Instead it seems to suffer from an over-earnestness, trying for the potential wackiness of the concept. Rather than a revisionist history film however, where encounters bristle with ideas about how history might have changed, Max seems to be more of a flip side to the troubled-youth-gets-laid genre lately exemplified by Antwone Fisher and Good Will Hunting: If the young man doesn’t find someone to love him, he will become a totalitarian dictator.

From its first scene, Max bursts over with overripe ambitions. The opening credits unfurl in a former train factory-turned-art gallery.  The constant whine of trains in the background evoke Auschwitz even as the violent paintings of angered proles simultaneously suggest the Beer Hall Putsch. The effect is unbearably portentous, and seldom a scene goes by without train whistles in the background, presumably to remind everyone that this is not a gimmick but a movie with real consequences. The gallery belongs to Cusack, and the guy delivering the champagne to the opening is young Adolf Hitler (Taylor, delivering splenetic rants in between ceaseless glowering), whose unimaginative landscapes Cusack derides as lacking an authentic voice. Cusack attempts to befriend the isolated Hitler (leading to the ultimate in inane revisionist-history/romance-scene dialogue: “Hitler, would you like to meet some girls?”) and make him into a great painter, but things don’t work out between the odd couple.

Meyjes does himself no favors with his grade-school symbolism. After Hitler delivers his first anti-Semitic rant, someone turns on a light bulb and looks admiringly at it for a second. Cusack’s character, meanwhile, gets a quick Freudian scrubbing: He’s lacking one arm (impotence!) and his mother clings desperately to the other one ("Do you know the difference between a Jewish mother and a rottweiler?" she asks. "Yes," glowers Cusack, "the rottweiler lets go."), and someone mutters “Here comes Hamlet” as he comes down the stairway. Worse yet is what will inevitably come to be known to devotees of scenes of cult weirdness as the “Aryan puppet show fucking” sequence, in which a troupe of German entertainers puts on for barracks residents a crude allegory of Jewish blood contaminating the Aryan bloodstream. It's the hideous flip-side of Being John Malkovich's obscene Heloise and Abelard side-show, and it’s goofily incredible.

Nevertheless, what happens up until the ending is not horrendous or offensive. For the most part, it’s somewhat thoughtful in contemplating the much-quoted “banality of evil,” though some will point out that the banality of evil was in the streamlined mechanical processes and execution of the Holocaust, not in Hitler himself. Max reduces Hitler to an unhappy loser; Cusack to a therapist who provides sound mentor-like advice (“You suffer from feelings of being cheated”), albeit a demented mentor who seems to be channeling Willy Wonka-era Gene Wilder; and the German nation to a pile of rubble, appropriating the old Germany, Year Zero trick of showing Hitler walking through devastating rubble to mirror his own emptiness. While dramatic scenes intended to be awkward and uncomfortable are stillborn and don’t work because it’s impossible to root for anyone or feel bad for anybody, a fair amount of insight is cast in portraying the Germany of the time. Technically, the film is up to snuff, with an acceptably neo-romantic score by Dan Jones and some flawlessly composed cinematography by Hungarian Lajos Koltai, who guides Meyjes well through the potential pitfalls of his directorial debut.

Where Max falls apart is its ending, which manages to reduce the Holocaust to the culmination of a bunch of temporal coincidences and minor ironies. The ending suggests, most poisonously, that had Hitler become an artist, nothing bad would’ve happened. The results do not “explain” anything so much as they trivialize all of the movie’s goals. The point is to show why something happened, not why it might not have happened. Still, Max is no Mandingo. It’s an honest attempt to comprehend evil from a little-used lens rather than use it for strange exploitation-movie laughs. The results are eminently watchable and fascinating, when they’re not just embarassingly half-assed.

—Vadim Rizov


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