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
Brilliant, totally non-offensive treatment of difficult subject
Sight unseen, the Jewish Defense League has urged Lions Gate Films to shelve this movie, due to its radical notion that Adolf Hitler was shaped by the world around him rather than being born the Antichrist. Specifically, the JDL protests that there is nothing "human about the most vicious, vile murderer in world history." As a person of Jewish extraction who has seen the movie (at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival), I would take exception to this stance and urge Lions Gate to proceed as planned. This film is a brilliant, engrossing, thought-provoking work that does Hitler no favors and sheds light on the real-world forces afoot in post WWI Munich that only could have nurtured his worst beliefs and talents.
Dutch-born Director Menno Meyjes has shown an affinity for tough ethnic and cultural clash themes in his career as a screenwriter (THE COLOR PURPLE, EMPIRE OF THE SUN and THE SIEGE are among his credits). But here, in his first chance to direct his own writing, he's come up with what's certainly his most fully realized work to-date. Eschewing simplistic notions, he weaves a fascinating story that deals at length with the career as a painter that Hitler is known to have unsuccessfully pursued at one time.
The title character of the film is a fictional (but based on a composite of real-life characters) Jewish German WWI vet named Max Rothman. He's lost one of his arms in battle, but is able to return to a much better situation than the average German vet: a loving wife and family, a gorgeous mistress, and family wealth that enables him to start an art gallery that prospers dealing in modern expressionist works. Hitler, by contrast, returns to pretty much nothing, and at age 30 is desperate to finally make the grade as a commercial artist.
Sensing that Hitler has a passion that there could be a market for if only he could find some way to get it out onto canvas, Max encourages him to experiment with schools of painting that seem a better fit for his temperament than the traditional ones he's decided to limit himself to. Unfortunately, Hitler's real artistic gift seems to be for a then-new form of performance art known as `propaganda,' and his Aryan war pals provide him with support for pursuing this field while simultaneously fanning his smoldering anti-Semitic sentiments.
Noah Taylor - who many feel got robbed of an Oscar nomination for his role as the young David Helfgott in SHINE - is mesmerizing in the Hitler role. Even made up to look gaunt, pallid, and thoroughly unappealing (although not freakish), you still can't take your eyes off of him. With body language, countenance, and tone of voice, he's able to suggest a raging intensity lurking just below the surface of his character's socially awkward loner exterior. Taylor still won't come up with any awards recognition for this role (it's WAY too hot a potato), but that doesn't change the fact that he's brilliantly conquered a daunting acting challenge.
John Cusack, in a welcome change from the light roles he's been playing lately, is also excellent as the title character, skillfully portraying a worldly businessman who's too focused on artistic images to ever notice the big picture. The subject matter allows near-zero latitude for levity, but SOME mirth is needed to keep the proceedings from becoming unrelentingly grim. Meyjes ingenious solution to this quandary is wry comments on art and (especially) the business of art by Max - a perfect fit for Cusack's deadpan delivery.
Even though you KNOW which career path Hitler is ultimately going down, the equilibrium between the forces pulling him in both directions and the incredible `what might have been' fascination factor keep you thoroughly transfixed throughout the film's near-2-hour running time. NOBODY in the huge auditorium where I saw the film got up or stirred from the opening scene through to the supremely ironic ending - not even to answer the call of nature. MAX is sure not `the feel-good film of the year,' but if you've been longing for a powerful, all-encompassing drama that doesn't require you to check your brain at the door, this is the film you've been waiting for.
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