Here's a line of dialogue I'll bet you never thought you'd hear in a movie: "Hitler, come, I will buy you a glass of lemonade!"
Ach! Is true! Hitler and his new friend Max go and drink lemonade and talk about art, the subconscious, the necessity of finding a voice, like arty undergrads in coffeehouses the world over. But there's a problem.
Hitler: "Can't you put that damned cigarette out! It's a filthy habit!"
Max: "It's my party and I'll smoke if I want to! smoke if I want to!, you would too if it happened to you!"
Well, all right, I'm a little over the top on the last one, with apologies to the great Lesley Gore, but the first two lines are indeed quoted verbatim from "Max," an astonishment star-crossed with lunacy, which is currently revising history in a bijou or two.
It's the story of the young and restless Adolf Hitler, artist and rebel, in the stormy turbulence of the Munich avant-garde in the late teens of the last century. Is this tasteless? Yes. It it necessary? Absolutely not. Is it inevitable? I suppose.
In a secular age where we have defined deviance down so far that people who fly airplanes full of civilians into skyscrapers, also full of civilians, may not be called "evil" without exciting cogitation among pious chatterers, Hitler remains a safe refuge from such idiocy. Whatever our politics, we can all agree on one thing: Hitler was and is and always will be the Beast. Thus we may study him without prejudice or sanction, and any evocation of him is weighted with an earned tonnage of woe, for we know what darkness he harbors.
The movie, written and directed by Menno Meyjes, a Dutchman who had an American fling as Steven Spielberg's scriptwriter on "The Color Purple," is somewhere between a concoction and a speculation, in that it does seem that Hitler had some sort of contact with the art world during his early years. Fictional or not, it is calibrated to illuminate the Beast. But it comes off as something between "The Producers" and "The Last Bunker," where poor Anthony Hopkins played der Fuehrer.
It postulates that, as a young ex-soldier in the Munich of 1918, Hitler was torn between art and politics. During this period, he met an art impresario named Max Rothman, who was a sort of keeper of the gate of artistic respectability. Max was a Jew, a progressive, but also a combat veteran who left an arm at Ypres, a chain-smoking ironist, a charismatic personality who had a way with the ladies and with the quip. I list those attributes, and then I say "John Cusack" and you think I said "Cyril Cusack." Or course Cyril, the late Irish actor, would have been perfect in the role; John is too American, too young, not cosmopolitan at all. That's the first big disconnect.
Surprisingly, the Hitler character isn't a disconnect. Played by a young Australian actor, Noah Taylor, he's all wiry energy, dark and gloomy power, will, twitchy idiocy and seriousness. Meyjes even plays him for comedy -- and hate me for laughing, but it was amusing to see the greatest murderer in history earnestly concerned with the plight of caged birds.
The dynamic between Max and Hitler is similarly comic, though there's no evidence it was meant to be so. Max's cosmopolitan confidence is continually irked at the smoldering anger and one-pointedness of Hitler. (Something like, "Hitler, always with the politics! Give it a rest!") Max, though utterly fictitious, at least feels somewhat authentic: He is like much of the European intelligentsia of the '20s and '30s, viewing the Austrian gloomy Gus with the bad teeth and the absurd ideas as an amusing figure, kitschy even, but essentially harmless.
The dramatic fulcrum of the film is the issue of artistic talent: Did Hitler have any? The movie pretends he did, and makes a great deal of Max's seeing "something" there and encouraging the young man to go deeper into himself to find that "authentic" voice. There seems to be an unstated corollary: If only he'd found a way to tap his fury and turn it to creative means, things didn't have to turn out the way they did. But the film doesn't quite play fair, in that the art it uses to represent Hitler's work isn't; it was done by a professional artist.
Nobody is interested in my opinion in these matters because I have no expertise at all, so of course I'll give it: The works of Hitler's that I've seen suggest a low degree of commercial skill, particularly in the rendering of forms such as buildings. He was a drearily competent draftsman, but -- no surprise -- he had no gift at all for the "living line": He couldn't produce a stroke that suggested the vibrancy, the quiver, the gusto of life.
So mad "Max" just sails off into nonsense as it postulates a world in which young Adolf is torn between his artistic gifts ("I think you're onto something!" Max screams when he looks at the man's kitschy, banal action-comic-like workups of what will become the house style of the Third Reich, predating Speer's influence by 15 years) and a newly discovered oratorical power for rousing the rabble with anti-Semitic diatribes.
The movie suggests that Hitler didn't believe in this; he simply found anti-Semitism a convenient means to selfhood, to being someone. So in the end -- particularly as the film cross-cuts between Hitler waiting anxiously for Max to arrive and look at the new drawings that may get him a show, and Max encountering the world that Hitler has created in the form of thugs on the hunt for Jews -- the movie seems to absolve Hitler. He wasn't evil, he was just undiscovered.
Yeah, well: But what about the other billions of undiscovered men who lived and died without turning the world into an abattoir? Somehow, one supposes, there had to be more than that. It's not enough, really, is it?
Max (106 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Cinema Arts Fairfax), is rated R for violence, particularly a bloody beating, as well as re-creations of anti-Semitic diatribes.