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.