Max (Menno Meyjes, 2002)

One of those people who finds a slight in any compliment

Max has an interesting thesis: Adolf Hitler wasn’t a failed artist, he was a brilliant artist. Except his medium wasn’t the pedestrian paintings he made in his homeless years, it was politics. The Third Reich was his ultimate exhibit.

Max Rothman is an art dealer in Munich during the interbellum. He’s rich and a Jew, but we are told in advance that many Jews volunteered to serve in the Kaiser’s army. He even lost an arm in the trenches. Played by John Cusack, he’s a likeable fellow who marches on with his life and throws himself passionately on the progress of art. Out with the old, in with the new! He’s fascinated by the Futurist movement in Italy and revels in modern art.

Enter Adolf Hitler, played as a gangly, tormented corporal by Noah Taylor, who returned from the front to nothing at home. He peddles his mediocre art. He fulminates against modern tendencies and relishes traditional values. Max sees something in Adolf, maybe only the bond of shared hardships, and begins to push him to go further and deeper. At the same time, Adolf’s military buddies prod him to start speaking up against the treaty of Versailles, which ruined Germany. As those two currents collide, Adolf fuses art and politics, and designs an empire. It’s the beginning of a dangerous turn in history.

It’s a known fact that Hitler struggled as a drifting painter after the First World War. We also know he later designed the various aspects of his rule along with architect Albert Speer. Whether he had already planned all of it (the swastikas, the buildings, the eagle, the storm troopers) beforehand is unknown and perhaps unlikely, but the element of doubt is enough to create a thrilling journey. From hobo to rising political star.

Unlike Der Untergang, which chronicled the last days of Hitler rather than the first, Max doesn’t paint the man in a beneficial light. Adolf is a pathetic creature, barely open to sympathy. Every time you start feeling sorry, he indulges in atrocious public rants. Mr. Rothman seems a saint to uphold their chafing friendship. As such, the material is hardly controversial. If anything, it dispels the mythical proportions surrounding Hitler. It shows us the vulnerable, offended, raging artist at his heart.

Throughout the movie you keep hoping things will turn out all right. Adolf can be saved from his violent tendencies. Max will arrange that art show for him, he’ll say goodbye to the military and the subsequent war would never happen. Of course, history is history. This isn’t a ‘what if?’. It’s a fascinating, perhaps somewhat romanticized look at how Hitler began his journey to becoming the F├╝hrer. Did he truly see all of it as an art project? The speeches, the strutting, the uniforms? Did he start to believe in it himself along the way, where once it was but theater? Probably not, but Max sells it convincingly.

Roderick Leeuwenhart