Review by Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4
When a scruffy, penniless man (Noah Taylor) introduces himself as
Adolf Hitler to Jewish arts dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack) in the
opening minutes of "Max," a fictionalized account of Hitler's infamous
pre-WWII years, a bitterly cold wind moves past them. Years of history
classes and secondhand accounts tell us today of what a monster the
anti-Semitic dictator Hitler became, and to see him prior to these
pivotal years, striking up a friendly conversation with a Jew, is chilling.
The directorial debut of screenwriter Menno Meyjes (1998's "The Siege"),
"Max" never recaptures this indelible feeling of threat until the
frightening, irony-filled final scenes. What stands between these
bookending moments is wobbly, uneven filmmaking, at best. Whole scenes
and key supporting characters constantly drift in and out of focus,
with little rhyme or reason for their inclusion at all. Occasional
jump-cuts and awkward camera directions signal either too little principal
photography coverage, a screenplay (written by Meyjes) more appropriate
for the stage than the screen, or an incompetent editor. Whatever
the case may be, "Max" has "first-time director" written all over
it, and the arresting, contemplative subject matter demands a more
experienced filmmaker to do it justice.
Set in Munich, Germany, circa 1918, Adolf Hitler meets Max Rothman--a
fellow soldier of WWI who lost his right arm in battle--at his modern
art gallery showing. Hitler, an aspiring artist, wants Max to display
and sell his work in his art warehouse, but Max is not impressed enough
to accept his plea. Nevertheless, Hitler begin a sort of quasi-friendship
with Max that goes against his burgeoning anti-Semitic views. All
Hitler really wishes for is to get his artwork shown and respected,
and Max responds by instructing him to put as much passion into his
art as he does into his political beliefs. All leads up to a finale
that lays the way for the ultimately destructive path Hitler later takes in life.
The poorly-titled "Max" holds several thought-provoking "what-if"
scenarios and some intriguing dialogue exchanges, but it does not
form a gratifying whole. One suspects that, had the story continued
throughout Hitler's reign in Germany over WWII, it would have made
for a far better picture. Because the link between fiction and reality
overlaps so much, it is difficult to get fully involved in what is happening onscreen.
It also doesn't help that the central character of Max Rothman is
so impassively handled under the helm of Menno Meyjes' direction.
Rothman, once an artist himself whose handicap from the war has put
a stop to it, is fleetingly seen spending time with his loyal wife,
Nina (Molly Parker), and two children, while carrying on an affair
with beautiful aristocrat Liselore (Leelee Sobieski). This love-triangle
subplot goes nowhere, leads to an anticlimactic conclusion, and is
frustrating in its undernourished development.
Largely a two-character show, it is nice to see John Cusack (2001's
"Serendipity"), as Max Rothman, sway from the kind of safe characters
he usually plays, while Noah Taylor (2001's "Vanilla Sky") solidly
embodies, both physically and mentally, what Hitler might have been
like during this time period. The Hitler in "Max" has not yet been
completely corrupted, and isn't yet a bad man, but when, in one scene,
he writes down, "Art + Politics = Power," it is obvious which road
he is headed down. The female roles, in comparison, are mostly ignored.
Molly Parker (1997's "Bliss"), as wife Nina, and the great Leelee
Sobieski (2001's "My First Mister"), as mistress Liselore, get only
a few minutes each of screen time, and little of worth to say or do.
Save for some luscious visuals in the way of Lajos Koltai's (2002's
"The Emperor's Club") cinematography, "Max" is clearly suited more
for the stage, and aspires to add up to more than it does. Where the
film is headed is always apparent, and how it gets there does not
enlighten. Anyone who even cursorily knows the history of Adolf Hitler
will not learn a single thing about him that they did not already
know in the course of the film. The stunning ending that director
Meyjes has cooked up, ironic yet truthful, is the best that "Max"
ever gets, and it isn't worth wading through the first 100 minutes to get there.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman