There's a sinuous, creepy feel to Menno Meyjes' movie "Max," set in post-WWI Germany and centered on the relationship between young Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor) and fictional Jewish bon vivant art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack).
Meyjes surrounds this odd twosome with a dark worldview and a landscape that's weirdly artificial: an objet d'art version of 1918 Munich, with art galleries built in cavernous railroad stations and interiors swarming with relics of Bauhaus and Dada. Against these backdrops, he shows a friendship that seems perverse only because we know what's coming. This Austrian painter and Wagner devotee will bring on the Holocaust; this Jewish sophisticate will be doomed by the ascension of the very artist he tries to patronize.
Meyjes ingeniously portrays Hitler not as we usually see him -- as a great historical monster or a comic travesty of one -- but as a rebellious, almost sympathetic young man whose genius for evil has not yet surfaced and whose dark side seems manageable to Max. But while Max is naive about Hitler, Meyjes isn't. He shows how failure to win a place in that modernist world of art and pleasure -- the arena of George Grosz and the soon-to-be Weimar-era artists -- fueled the rage of young Hitler, a painter with a romantic streak and a cold, angry heart, and set him on the road to fascism and world destruction.
Taylor plays Hitler as a bitter young malcontent. In sharp contrast, Cusack plays Max as the quintessential liberal aesthete, a generous man with a loving wife (Molly Parker as Nina) and an aristocratic mistress (Leelee Sobieski as Liselore Von Peltz). Max is attracted to Hitler, tries to help him and winds up hailing as breakthrough art the very emblems of national socialism (swastika and all) that will eventually consume him.
The movie has stirred some concerns that humanizing Hitler may desensitize us to his historic evil. But it's important to understand that evil springs from recognizable human sources, that it's closer than we realize -- common, even (as Hannah Arendt says) banal.
It's a tricky proposition playing Hitler. One of the few really convincing portrayals was by Leonid Mozgovoy in Alexander Sokurov's "Moloch," and the most memorable was Charlie Chaplin's comedy sendup as the vain, preening Adenoid Hynkel in "The Great Dictator." Taylor manages a more naturalistic portrait by letting us see the burning rage, drive and egoism that will make him a monster at a time when the monstrousness is still nascent. This is a skinny, sallow, sickish-looking Hitler, and only his trademark cowlick and fierce eyes suggest the future screaming tyrant.
It's an even trickier proposition playing Max Rothman. Is he a gull or someone afflicted with self-loathing? Can't he guess that the hatreds Hitler keeps expressing are real and volatile? Cusack gives Max breezy charm, a lot of intelligence, and a recklessness -- an imprudently adventurous spirit that blinds him to the dangers he's near. Max has only one arm -- like Hitler, he's a veteran -- but in every other way he seems a golden boy living a dream. When he wanders through that huge art gallery, sipping liqueurs and offhandedly hobnobbing with Grosz (Kevin McKidd), he seems a man for whom only artifice is serious, who doesn't really dwell in the real world. When his mistress Liselore is repelled by Hitler, it's probably more from taste than morality.
But where do art and life, taste and morality, really intersect? The ironies of "Max" lie both in its suggestion that Hitler's fascism was born from a frustrated artistic bent (something also suggested by Hitler intimate Albert Speer) and in the notion that the symbols of evil can be deemed artistic by a man they will possibly kill.
Menno Meyjes, who makes his writer-directorial debut with this film, is one of Steven Spielberg's screenwriters. He wrote the script for "The Color Purple" and contributed to "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Empire of the Sun." Only "Empire" could prepare us for the ambition and daring of "Max," a flawed film but an admirable one that tries to immerse us in a world of artistic abandon and political madness and very nearly succeeds.
3 stars (out of 4)
Directed and written by Menno Meyjes; photographed by Lajos Koltai; edited by Chris Wyatt; production designed by Ben Van Os; music by Dan Jones; produced by Andras Hamori. A Lion's Gate Films release; opens Friday, Jan. 24. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (sensuality, violence).
Max Rothman -- John Cusack
Adolf Hitler -- Noah Taylor
Liselore Von Peltz -- Leelee Sobieski
Nina Rothman -- Molly Parker
Captain Mayr -- Ulrich Thomsen Frau Rothman (Max's mother) -- Janet Suzman
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.