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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Max

Starring: John Cusack, Noah Taylor
Director: Menno Meyjes
Rated: R
RunTime: 106 Minutes
Release Date: December 2002
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Leelee Sobieski, Paul Hipp, Molly Parker, Ulrich Thomsen

Review by Dragan Antulov
2 stars out of 4

In late 1980s, while few people believed in the possibility of the nightmare that would engulf this part of the world, main propagator of ideas that would result in Vukovar and Srebrenica was the organisation known as Serbian Literary Society. In later years, some of the most rabid chauvinists in this came from the ranks of notable poets, painters, actors, rock musicians and other people endowed with undeniable literary and artistic talents. So, for the author of this review, main premise behind MAX, controversial 2002 drama written and directed by Menno Meyjes, isn't something particularly shocking or new.

The plot begins in 1918 Munich. Four years ago, Max Rothman (played by John Cusack), son of prominent Jewish doctor, has volunteered to serve in Kaiser's army and after three years lost his arm at the Third Battle of Ypres. That has put the end to Rothman's artistic ambitions, but, upon return to his family and friends, he had enough financial resources to start successful art gallery business. One evening he meets another former volunteer and veteran of Third Battle of Ypres. 29-year old corporal Adolf Hitler (played by Noah Taylor) might have both of his arms, but hardly anything else - without friends, family, job or home, he is forced to stay with the Army and share smelly barracks with same kind of unfortunates, increasingly bitter about humiliations of defeat and Versailles Treaty. However, two men also share artistic ambitions, so Hitler wants Rothman to help him jumpstart his career as a painter. Rothman thinks that the intense bitterness of the wretched corporal might indeed hide genuine art talent, but also urges Hitler to make his art more modern and "avant-garde". Hitler, however, can't meet Rothman's criteria, partly because of his own aesthetic biases and partly because he must support himself by working extra hours as propaganda mouthpiece for right-wing Army officers led by Captain Mayr (played by Ulrich Thomsenn). There he slowly discovers another, more palpable talent as street agitator and begins wondering whether to pursue career in art or in politics.

When people want to put absolute evil into human form they usually take the example of Adolf Hitler. Dutch writer and director Menno Meyjes, however, dares to ask heretical question whether such state of affairs was accidental or not and speculates that in slightly different set of circumstances the notorious German dictator could have lived his life without staining the pages of history. This speculation is based on some details of Hitler's early life that are usually overlooked in history books. Before joining German army in WW1, Hitler's main ambition in life was to become an artist. Despite developing anti-Semitic views early on, Hitler had couple of Jewish friends. And, finally, it took some time after the end of WW1 for Hitler to be actually involved in politics; that was the consequence of his job of an Army spy, hired to monitor various radical groups in Munich, one of which would later be known as Nazi party. Meyjes uses those facts and combines them with the fictional character Max Rothman, composite of few real-life Jewish art dealers who used to live in Munich at those times. MAX suggests that Hitler at those times was embittered and penniless, but also confused; the relationship with his Jewish would-be mentor was the thing that, ironically, drove him to the direction that would result in his name being forever associated with worst possible infamy.

This idea couldn't have worked without an actor brave enough to take the heretical challenge of putting the human face to person that is viewed as the total opposite of humanity. Australian actor Noah Taylor takes that challenge and gives superb performance of young Hitler - without moustaches, in shoddy clothes, far from charisma that would turn tens of millions of people into his loyal followers. As such, especially when the conflicting forces (art and politics, friendship towards Jew and anti-Semitism, lofty ambitions and desperate reality) reflect on his face, Hitler can be almost sympathetic; Taylor wisely avoids crossing that line and gives sinister dimension even to some of Hitler's traits that would otherwise be commendable. Hitler's refusal to smoke, drink or engage in sex gives hints of dangerous fanatic; his kindness towards animals is compensation for the lack of kindness towards fellow men.

MAX had potential to become truly remarkable film, but its makers lacked the courage to fully exploit its controversial premise. So, Meyjes took the safe route, first by using MAX instead of ADOLF for a title, then by putting emphasis on Max as a title character. John Cusack plays that role incredibly well, but all his talent can save it from being overshadowed by the dark presence of Hitler/Taylor. To make things even worse, MAX spends too much dealing with boring details of Rothman's family life and his extra-marital liaison with German aristocratic wannabe artist Liselore von Peltz (played by Leelee Sobieski). All that makes the film too slow and the ironic finale is not as effective as it should have been. Meyjes in the end also succumbs to "artsy" symbolism, especially in the scene where shots of Nazi rally in such way that they give illusion of taking place in synagogue.

The worst thing about MAX, however, is its lax attitude towards historical context, which is unforgivable sin for the film that makes such bold and thought-provoking speculation. In the film the Versailles Treaty, which had been brought on Germany in June 1919, is shown to take effect in autumn. While MAX very realistically shows poverty, hunger, despair and bitterness of post-WW1 Germany, there is very little violence. Actually, Munich was very violent place at those times and city was even ruled by Bolsheviks for a month (and one of the films shot at those times even features Hitler taking part in leftist street demonstrations). However, all those flaws could be overlooked thanks great acting, suggestive photography by Lajos Koltai and intriguing premise. MAX is definitely far below its potential, but it is nevertheless one of the more thought-provoking films of our times.

Copyright 2002 Dragan Antulov

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