MAX | Movie Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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In 1918, Adolf Hitler was a gaunt, embittered, 30-year-old army corporal and war veteran who ate swill served to him in bread lines, and who walked around Munich clutching his precious portfolio of sketches. Meanwhile, in a chicly inhospitable industrial warehouse, Max Rothman -- also a war veteran, and a Jew -- sold modern art in a postmodern setting to the city's cultured elite.

In Max, Menno Meyjes' story of their relationship, the two men meet during one of Rothman's exhibitions when Hitler (Noah Taylor) delivers a case of champagne and Rothman (John Cusack) notices that the diffident young man has something tucked under his arm. He looks at the work, sees good technique, and urges Hitler to find his voice and release his soul. If only. For Meyjes leaves you with the impression that the formative führer had a choice of two paths to follow: "Art and politics," he writes on a piece of paper, but his life soon becomes art or politics. It's a conjunction that made all the difference in the world.

Meyjes -- a first-time director, who wrote The Color Purple screenplay and an Indiana Jones movie -- speculates on what might have happened had Rothman's tutelage succeeded. Over and over, Rothman goads the artist with genial empathy to go deeper into himself and to see where it takes his art. But the die of Hitler's personality is cast. For reasons we never learn, he's a joyless ideologue and a throwback to a time of high-minded morality: He chides Rothman -- whose own art career ended when he lost an arm in the war -- for smoking, drinking and having a mistress (Leelee Sobieski), and he sees modern art as diarrhea on canvas.

The Hitler of Max sounds eerily like today's cultural watchdogs and moral absolutists, and as his frustration with Rothman grows, so does his descent into politics. He belittles some Germans for engaging in emotional anti-Semitism and teaches them to be logical about it: You must hate the Jews for a reason, such as the fact that Jews are not Germans, yet they infiltrate German culture and blood.

The fiery dialogues in this somber period piece are suitably engaging, albeit in a somewhat bookish and blatant way. Meyjes keeps his foreshadowing to a minimum, although after a while, it becomes odd to hear people call the young man "Hitler," as though it's just another name. Rothman, who believes in the power of words, stages a provocative anti-war performance piece that offends even his regular patrons. When we see Hitler painting -- blocked, with a mere splotch on his canvas -- we want his effort to blossom into something that saves the world from his alter ego.

Max is cinematic theater, a didactic drama and conversation piece, with exceptional performances from its leads. As Rothman, Cusack revivifies the gentle, introspective actor who can pause between breaths; and as Hitler, Taylor (who is British) balances pathos and psychosis with a chilling effect that climaxes when he finally makes his first big rallying speech and, in arguing why Germany should fear the Jews, seems to give the German people exactly what they want. * * *

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