Art + Politics = Power
Germany, 1918. Max Rothman (John Cusack, Say Anything), a Jewish art dealer, meets a war veteran and aspiring artist named Adolph Hitler (Noah Taylor, Flirting). Rothman is a champion of Expressionism, Cubism, and Dada—abstract movements abhorrent to the young Hitler, who feels an as-yet unarticulated potential in tradition and formalism for reinventing his decimated homeland. Rothman takes an interest in the artist partly because he finds his merging of the sleek forms of Futurism with Teutonic mythos fascinating, but also because the two men share a frustration with Germany's defeat and the humiliating terms of peace in the Treaty of Versailles (Rothman, too, is a veteran, the combat loss of his right arm having ended his own career as a painter).
Meanwhile, a German officer named Mayr (Ulrich Thomsen, The World is Not Enough) takes an interest in Hitler's sharp mind and oratory skills, and seduces him back into a military struggling to fight the advance of communism in Germany. Rothman urges Hitler to find personal catharsis through artistic expression, but the future Führer has begun weaving eugenics and anti-Semitism into his aesthetics and his goals have become more lofty: rather than use art to make a political statement, he seeks to make politics itself his artistic medium.
Despite the mild controversy surrounding Max's production and release, the film only humanizes Adolph Hitler to the extent that he is played by Noah Taylor, a superb, oddly magnetic actor no matter the role. Taylor's performance is nuanced but it's also mostly informed by photographs of the Fürher and footage of his explosive speeches (in the disc's supplemental interviews the actor explains that he found the key to the performance in a class photo that captured Hitler at eight: the child already had the stern, angry eyes and rigid set of jaw we associate with the madman to this day). Max isn't a kunstleroman so much as it is an examination of the roots and nature of German fascism. The philosophy is cast as an overreaction to the desperate intellectual nihilism that attended Germany's humiliation in World War I and its subsequent economic struggles, birthing abstract modes of artistic expression meant to erode a traditional culture that had led the country into a disastrous military conflict. Writer/director Menno Meyjes' real purpose is exploring fascism's xenophobic protection of tradition and staunch resistance to any sort of self-examination, both of which led to the economic and cultural scapegoating that enabled Hitler's mass murder of Jews.
Neither Hitler nor Rothman are particularly round characters. Each is the walking embodiment of dueling artistic and political philosophies: Hitler the stray-dog defeated military grunt, Rothman the affluent intellectual awash in post-war cynicism. Any affinity we feel for the characters is a result of how the stereotypes on the page interface with the actors' personas. Taylor's previous mastery of hyper-intelligent geek roles doesn't make Hitler sympathetic but it does enable us to understand why Rothman might invest his time in a troubled young man he believes may have the potential to develop into a great artist if he can find the courage to stand face to face with the traumas he suffered in the war. In Rothman we have proof that John Cusack's charming, quick-witted, mildly world-weary leading man persona translates easily to between-the-wars Germany.
The film's one major flaw is an ending that would be overly melodramatic even if its consequences weren't so dire as forever altering the geo-political trajectory of the 20th century. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that a meeting is scheduled to take place in the film's final moments. When it falls through due to circumstances beyond our protagonist's control, Hitler's course is set. The sad thing is that only moments before Hitler had articulated his larger vision to Rothman: an art that transcends galleries, one that is executed through the people and culture of Germany. As filmed, the wrong character was a no-show at the meeting. There was a way to end things that was purely dramatic, springing entirely from character. Instead, Meyjes regrettably introduced a deus ex machina in order to wrap things up with a little Hollywood oomph.
The DVD's 1.85:1 anamorphic image does an admirable job of capturing cinematographer Lajos Koltai's (Malèna) stylized look, which bounces from warm, fully saturated colors in scenes involving Max, to a cooler, flashed color palette when Hitler's present. The image displays a bit of grain, but edge enhancement is minimal. Audio, both Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 surround, is as dynamic as it needs to be. The film's ample dialogue is clean and robust, while the score and atmospheric noises make good use of the rear stage, and the occasional gunshots have needed punch.
Menno Meyjes' audio commentary is surprisingly unsatisfying as he speaks mostly from his perspective as a director and little as a writer. There's much talk about performance details, shot compositions, and post-production, as well as many anecdotes about working with the actors, but Meyjes offers little about the story's construction and its historical context.
The other extra is a collection of cast and crew "interviews." I use quotation marks here because the segments are little more than soundbites running under a minute each, pulled from an electronic press kit. There are three or four bites from each contributor and, annoyingly, the disc jumps back to the selection menu between each one—there is no Play All feature.
Though Max is more about ideas than characters, it handles those ideas with smart precision and its leads' performances prevent it feeling dry and didactic. It's climactic stumble make it more appropriate for a rental than a purchase, though.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Director Menno Meyjes
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