Directed by Menno Meyjes. Starring John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Ulrich Thomsen, Molly Parker. (2002, R, 106 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 28, 2003
Controversy surrounds certain films like a gray and cloying fog. It can be beneficial, a contrived marketing tool that might add a certain luster to an otherwise forgettable picture, or it can be a legitimate outgrowth of the film’s (or the filmmakers’) politics. Max, which features Noah Taylor (Shine) as a young, post-WWI Adolph Hitler in cynical artistic mode and John Cusack (who also functioned as one of the film’s associate producer) as the Jewish art dealer who first meets Corporal Hitler in the trenches and then again in Weimar Berlin, has courted controversy from its very inception, raising the ire of virtually every major Jewish organization from B’nai B’rith on down. I can’t think of a single recent film that’s had this many people upset over its very existence (Spike Lee’s Bamboozled raised some eyebrows with its Stepin Fetchit blackface shenanigans, and Kevin Smith tweaked the Catholic Church into a marginal brouhaha with Dogma, but maybe only Monty Python’s Life of Brian, an inoffensive and deeply compassionate comic fable of mistaken religious identity, caused this much furor when it was released in 1979). Writer/director Meyjes’ offense, his detractors say, is that he has dared to place a human face on the 20th century’s most inhuman villain. Hitler the monster is seen here, in a remarkable and astonishing portrayal by Taylor, as a mentally battered war vet with artistic aspirations. His dreary landscapes and still lifes are as dead as his eyes, and the only spark within him seems to come from a misguided sense of loss and betrayal (by the German army, by the allies, by life in general) that eventually finds release when he’s taken under the wing of a German superior officer, the unctuous Captain Mayr (Ulrich), who recognizes the black seeds of evil in the serious young corporal and assists in the construction of the fiery, spittle-chinned, and fist-pumping orator that eventually awakens. That Meyjes dares to render the Monster in human terms – Hitler is a frail, pale, haunted thing; he looks like he’s sorely in need of a hot bath and some hot jazz – isn’t the problem. Far from it: Taylor’s Hitler is a breathtaking bit of acting. There is simultaneously everything and nothing going on behind his dirty face with the lanky forelock. It’s as if this Hitler were a waxwork automaton, awaiting some awful black magic to stagger to life and into the black-banked fires of history. Cusack’s Max, on the other hand, is a bourgeois gentleman of leisure with a penchant for "decadents" like Grosz and, presumably, Schiele. He lost his arm in the war, but he still looks dapper enough to keep a mistress (Sobieski) on the side, as well as a wife and two children. His own humanity is intact, but he’s blind to the devil beside him. Ultimately, Meyjes focuses too much on Max when he should be filling the screen with this tortured, dull artist and monster-in-the-making. Dark and brooding and clearly already on the path to lunacy, and guided by a strident and innate aesthetic sense that stems in part from his own artistic failures, Hitler is a far more interesting (albeit repellent) subject to ponder. Taylor’s Hitler strides into Hell with the grimy patina of inevitability clinging to his breeches; Max just stands back and watches, and occasionally crows over a new addition to his collection of paintings, never quite imagining that art could conceive such a double-edged blade.