Munich, 1918. German-Jew Max Rothman has returned to much of his pre-war life which includes to his wife Nina and their two children, to his mistress Liselore von Peltz, and to his work as an art dealer. He has however not returned to being an aspiring painter as he lost his dominant right arm during the war. He is approached by an aspiring painter, a thirty-year old Austrian war veteran named Adolf Hitler, who wants him to show his works. Although he doesn't think the paintings are all that original and he doesn't really like Hitler as a person, Rothman takes Hitler under his wings if only because of their camaraderie of being war veterans, and knowing that Hitler had nothing and no one to come back to after the war unlike himself. Rothman believes that Hitler has promise if only he can find his original artistic point of view. In part out of need for money, Hitler, on the urging of Captain Karl Mayr, agrees to work for the army as a political spokesman in anti-Semitic propaganda. ... Written by
Not very long ago several art historians sought an American publisher for a catalogue of paintings by Adolf Hitler that had survived the Gotterdamerung in the Berlin bunker and the acquisitive hordes of Russian occupiers, perhaps the greatest conquering locusts of modern times. No one would publish the book and several reasons were proffered. The most interesting was that it would be virtually obscene to examine a human side of the twentieth century's greatest monster (Stalin ranks up there too but this isn't the place for that digression).
Why shouldn't every aspect of Hitler's life be open for examination, including his paintings? Hitler was a human being: his younger years and his attempts to become an artist are part of the probably ultimately impenetrable mystery about his development. Let's study everything about him.
Director/Writer Menno Meyjes's "Max" brings the battle-scarred, thirty-year-old Austrian, Adolf Hitler, to turbulent 1918 Munich where he seeks to make sense of the battered city and country while pursuing his dream (fantasy, actually) of becoming a respected and original artist. So much of the film is true. The corporal, still in the army, largely but not exclusively painted the detailed but uninspired and flat urban scenes bought by tourists. Meyjes also has Hitler drawing his ideas about what would later be National Socialist iconography, a reflection of his increasing obsession witn politics..
"Max", a fictional character, is a womanizing, married art dealer. Max Rothman, like Hitler is a former soldier. Rothman literally gave his right arm for "Kaiser und Vaterland," but he seems to accept his sacrifice without deep bitterness. John Cusack as Rothman, the avatar of an emerging German Expressionism, is excellent as he enjoys his pre-Bauhaus mansion while seeking every opportunity to steal away from his lovely and devoted wife, Nina (well-played by Molly Parker) to exercise his libido with his mistress, Liselore (a sultry and cultured young woman whose spirit is captured by Leelee Sobieski).
Hitler shows up delivering a case of bubbly for a Rothman gallery soiree and a conversation begins a weird friendship. Max wants Hitler to be a better artist which in his view is synonymous with being a better man. What a project! Noah Taylor is intense, on fire, as the future fuehrer. Can this bantering Odd Couple seem real when we know what the future holds for Hitler and for Jewish families like the Rothmans who, both in this film and to a large degree in the Germany of the Versailles Treaty, had no inkling that anti-Semitism was being stoked and would emerge rampant before very long? Would we never have heard of the monster Hitler had he been accorded respect (and money) as a painter? That's the film's truly superficial question. Hitler's life wasn't that reductionist.
My answer is that this film should be absorbed as a bifurcated experience. As drama, the acting is compelling. The direction is strong and one scene in which Hitler's rants are rapidly alternated with a Jewish service is blindingly powerful. As German veterans decry a military defeat and the "Stab in the Back" theory begins its awful climb to a national excuse for losing the war the Rothmans, their children and extended family, seem to enjoy a barely inconvenienced life of sumptuousness. The story works well at that level.
Where it fails is that the projected Hitler-Rothman relationship lacks the depth some have found. More than a few critics have suggested that Meyjes sends a message about blindness because Max can't see the anti-Semitic screeching of Hitler as an adumbration of Germany's future. The real reason Max doesn't take Hitler all that seriously is that he himself isn't a very serious fellow except when he tries to sell art and pursue parallel but antagonistic romantic relationships.
How would a Max Rothman have divined the potential of a miserable, hungry corporal in a city where such fellows were common and where they constituted a public menace as the fear of communists and the shakiness of a wrecked economy brought disorder? Impossible. (A prologue title mentions that 100,000 Jews served in the German Army in World War I. My father was one of them and I recall his recollection of disarming warring, urban civilians and quasi-military bands after the Armistice.)
So Max puts his arm around Hitler, offers to buy him lemonade and tells him he isn't an easy guy to like. That brought one of the few guffaws in the theater today. It's not revelatory cinema, it's silly and superficial. The weakest parts of the film are when Max tries to be a pal to his new find.
Charlie Chaplin had Hitler's number and his impersonation of the by-then Nazi leader is an indelible screen classic, a work of acting genius. Noah Parker's younger Hitler is intense and mesmerizing. I wonder if an Oscar nomination can go to an actor portraying one of the most evil characters in all history, one whose mark leaves deep scars in many living today. I have my doubts. We'll see.
Original, different, flawed, often fascinating, in parts a bit foolish.
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