Adolf Hitler: the name still has such a powerful resonance over 50 years after the end of the Second World War. From Charlie Chaplin's film The Great Dictator to Don Dellio's novel Running Dog And Beyond, the fascination with ‘The Most Evil Man In The World’ seems to continue unabated. A further and perhaps controversial addition comes in the shape of the directorial debut movie from screenplay veteran Menno Meyjes. Max, starring John Cusack and Noah Taylor, is a fictional account of the early life and world shattering choices made by a young Adolf Hitler just after the end of the First World War.
Max is a Jewish artist who, having lost his right arm in the war still works in the art world, but as a dealer rather than a painter. He lives a relatively comfortable life with his family and has a mistress, a fellow artist. Into this world comes a young man with no friends, family or real direction to his life, living in war barracks and struggling as an artist. A man called Hitler. The two war veterans meet and whilst it is not exactly a friendship that develops a strange bond grows between them. But Hitler has another mentor, Captain Myer who sees in the young man a different kind of potential.
It is the struggle between two mentors that is one of the central themes of the film and the worlds of political activism and art are represented by both Captain Myer and Max. But the film is most concerned with the relationship between art and politics. The many discussions of art, in particular modernism are well handled. These conversations between the two main characters give the audience a full understanding of how connected art, in particular modernism, was with politics in Germany at this time. Visions of the future and how art could shape and change that future for the better are well conveyed by these moments. Max seems to want to channel the young Adolf's pain and anger (a pain and anger felt by so many who returned from the trenches) into his art. But he of course has no idea as to how far his anger will go and thankfully the movie does not resort to foresight or have ironic moments with regard to Hitler. Instead there are many scenes which have specific resonance, in one seemingly innocent moment Max is talking to his children about “the world upside down”, but for all Jews their world will in, only a couple of decades be totally turned upside down. In another powerful moment the disillusioned troops, Hitler among them, are given an anti-Semitic presentation in a macabre child-like puppet show with Adolf the only one not laughing. Later, in a decisive, if fabricated scene Hitler, frustrated with his canvas, scribbles on a piece of paper with an angry hand ART+POLITICS=POWER.
Noah Taylor, who found international acclaim with his role as the young David Helfgott in Shine, is very good, portraying Hitler as a human being. He shows us a man at a crossroads in his life, a confused angry individual searching for meaning after war. It is only on rare occasions that his portrayal borders on parody but he just stops his performance from crossing that line. This however maybe due to the inescapable images of Hitler an audience cannot totally exclude from their minds when watching this film. Cusack is of course impressive as ever - when is he not - surely he is one of the best and most versatile actors working in Hollywood today even in this part which occasionally borders on the stereotypical. Ulrich Thomsen as Captain Myer delivers a faultless performance creating a believable German officer rather than the usual caricature. Unfortunately many of the other characters are quite inconsequential and as a result the actors struggle in trying to make their parts more than two dimensional in relation to Max and Adolf. Leelee Sobieski as Max's mistress for example is a paper-thin characterisation and the adultery subplot doesn't really go anywhere.
But this film is not called Adolf, it is called Max and this is where other flaws become apparent. When the film is concentrating on Max's life it becomes a tad tedious, despite Cusacks strong performance. As a contrast to Hitler there are some interesting moments and their views on art, politics and the future are compelling but the story of a fictional character could never be as engaging as that of the future leader of The Third Reich and the films pace suffers in these moments. There are other problems, the films direction and cinematography whilst good fail to fully convey the sense of the period. This is supposed to be Germany in 1918 but could be anytime in the twentieth century. The audience are never really shown the larger world of post World War One Germany and as such both Max and Adolf's discussions are not seen in as full an historical context as they should. This is the films fundamental failing. Also, despite the fine performances and close examination between art and politics the idea that a young Adolf may have made the choice to start out on the road to becoming the man we know today because he was not accepted as an artist seems a tad simplistic, naive even. But the strong performance by Noah Taylor goes some way to helping the audience overlook this flaw.
Overall Max is a good film despite some flaws. For the most part well written, directed and acted it is not afraid to court controversy by humanising Adolf Hitler. But at the same time it never attempts to excuse his actions. Its message may be not so much ‘here are the reasons why Hitler did what he did’ but ‘Hitler was and should be portrayed as a human being - albeit one that was responsible for unspeakable acts of horror - rather than a cartoonish supervillain’. But the film is inherently fictional; maybe a more 'fact' based biopic would be a better way of demystifying Adolf Hitler. If the world is ready for such a film.