Menno Meyjes has written some eight screenplays, the best known of which is The Color Purple – and that was 17 years ago. With Max he not only wrote the script, but he also makes his debut as director–a distinguished debut, indeed. An imagined historical fiction, Max is a thoughtful, intelligent and handsome, if somewhat unbalanced effort, a film that might not have been expected from Meyjes prior outings.
Two characters dominate the proceedings which take place in Munich in 1918, right after the end of World War I. Max Rothman (John Cusack) is a high-powered dealer in contemporary art, representing such luminaries of the period as George Grosz and Max Beckmann. He came back from the trenches where he lost his right arm, effectively obliterating his own ambitions as a painter. His gallery is a huge abandoned factory where the rain drips through leaks in the roof and the wealthy collectors of Munich come to elegant openings and avant garde performance art presentations. Rothman comes from a wealthy Jewish family, is married and has two children he adores, not to speak of a beautiful mistress on the side. He’s bright, articulate, irreverent, and charming, his lively patter perhaps a coverup for feelings of inadequacy due to his handicap. He also seems somewhat oblivious to what is going on outside of his privileged circle.
Enter a young veteran back from the war, penniless, jobless, friendless, and without family, by the name of Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). He has ambitions to be an artist, but Rothman finds his drawings of the war to be without feeling. Where Rothman chain smokes endlessly, Hitler abstains from tobacco, caffeine and alcohol. He’s rigid, dogmatic, and intense in his feelings; Rothman urges him to get that passion onto the canvas to become a good artist.
Hitler, for lack of funds, is living in an army barracks where there is anti-Semitic talk. He criticizes others for their emotional anti-Semitism, believing it to be an intellectual matter that should be in the hands of the government "like public health or sewage." Hitler attends an Army-sponsored propaganda course, one that is laden with anti-Semitism. The Army recognizes that in its demoralized and economically unstable condition, Germany could turn to communism on the left or to the right. The military prefers the right; there is a reference to "war’s vitality," to war as the "hygiene of the world."
When the Treaty of Versailles is negotiated, the Black Shirts on the right protest, but the privileged Jews of Rothman’s family are equally distressed. The Jews in Germany were highly assimilated, part of the texture of German culture, politics, and commerce. Many thousands fought for Germany in the World War I. These Jews often thought of themselves as Germans first, Jews second–certainly as loyal German citizens. But the growing sentiment on the right used the scapegoating of the Jews as non-Germans, non-Aryans to leverage the dissatisfaction of a defeated Germany and difficult economic times. From these conditions grew the National Socialist Party and Hitler becomes a rising star as he speaks at party functions.
Ironically, Hitler brings to Rothman drawings of his visions for a new Germany–neoclassic skyscrapers, Nazi insignia and uniforms. "Politics is the new art," he declares. Rothman finds the work interesting and labels it "future kitsch," never grasping its implications. A final sequence in the film powerfully underlines the irony of the failed connection between these two men.
Cusack (High Fidelity, Being John Malkovich) is at his best in Max, his dialogue delivered with deceptive effortlessness, the wry and intelligent observations flowing naturally as if freshly coined. He captures both the passion of the art lover and the casual ease of the rich and privileged. His underlying bitterness at the loss of his arm and ability to paint is carefully camouflaged, but always present under the surface. Cusack has eyes that see, he creates a sense of soaking up the visual world around him.
Taylor (Vanilla Sky, Almost Famous) gives a tour de force performance as Hitler, boiling over with intensity. The script gives him some quieter moments and might have done better with more of them; the character verges dangerously close to caricature.
If it had happened once, it might have slipped by, but twice the script has Rothman using the expression "really does it for me," as in "Newness really does it for me." It’s a minor quibble, but surely this is late 20th century usage and it sounds startlingly anachronistic in Max. A more pivotal weakness in the script is its failure to develop any of the secondary characters in any depth, especially Rothman’s family.Brief scenes involve his wife, parents, and mistress, scenes which cried for more fleshing out, or, at least, a closer connection to the central points of the film.
On balance, though, Max is an auspicious new work from Meyjes, offering substance, originality, and an intriguing excursion into speculative history. – Arthur Lazere