"Come on, Hitler, I'll buy you a glass of lemonade."
I took down that line while sitting in a darkened theater during a screening of "Max," a film about Adolf Hitler's years as a struggling and, ultimately, failed artist in Munich. At first, I scoffed -- how preposterous, how beyond kitsch, how absurd, like something snatched from "The Producers."
But in subsequent days the line started to weigh on me. It no longer seemed absurd, but true. Someone had made an offer much like that to Hitler because, of course, he was once just an ordinary person -- if ordinary means "unknown" and "powerless." He was, in short, a human being. Had he been a better artist, he might never have turned to politics.
The portrayal of the youngish (he was 30) Hitler as a person and not as the abstraction we call evil has already landed "Max" in hot water. Even before it opened -- even before it was seen by its critics -- it was lambasted. Various columnists who had not seen the movie called it tawdry. Historians Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, writing in the Los Angeles Times, said, "Now the story is about the personal pain Hitler endured and not about the murder he unleashed across the continent." Maybe they'll change their minds once they see the movie.
One person who did is Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Why the desire to make this monster human?" he asked before seeing "Max." A viewing changed his mind. " 'Max' does a good job in showing Hitler for who he was."
Yes. A rabble-rouser and an anti-Semite and a pan-German nationalist and a dopey romantic, infused with his beloved Wagner and Teutonic mythology. But he was also an artist -- not a bad one, either. In that capacity, he had dealings with Jews. By all accounts, these were polite dealings, mutually beneficial dealings with, among others, Jewish art dealers. (The fictitious Max Rothman, played by John Cusack, is one of them.) Albert Speer, the architect who became Hitler's armaments minister, tells us that Hitler considered himself first and foremost an artist. He would, brutally, re-create the world in his own image.
At the Toronto Film Festival, where "Max" was screened, some people walked out. I don't know why. The movie does, as charged, humanize Hitler, but it does not make him either attractive or personable. He emerged from the trenches of World War I with a corporal's chevron on his sleeve and bitter grievances in his heart. His world -- particularly the Vienna of his youth -- was drenched in anti-Semitism. In his vagabond days as an impoverished artist, however, it was not hatred of Jews that motivated him but a desire to make his mark with his palette and brush.
Anti-Semitism came later, maybe because his failure as an artist metastasized his grievances, maybe because he simply believed the hatred he was hearing from countless soapboxes -- maybe for reasons we will never know. The search for the rational reasons for irrational anti-Semitism may itself be an irrational endeavor. The bigot's Jew is both the archetypal communist and the archetypal capitalist, weak and rheumy-nosed and yet brimming with sexual prowess. "The Jew," in short, is anything anyone fears.
If "Max" is important, it's because it shows the insufficiency of the term "evil." Pinning that label on a man really explains nothing. Sure, Hitler was mad -- both a sociopath who thought society's rules did not apply to him and an uber-narcissist because he could not, as we now say, feel anyone else's pain. Maybe he was insane -- but compared with whom? At the time, much of Europe was a vast asylum, enthralled by fascism, consumed by hate -- engaged in a quasi-religious fight against all sorts of evils: rapacious capitalism, atheistic communism, homosexuality, modernity and, of course, the personification of them all, the Jew.
Evil is an idea. Evil is many people believing that idea. Evil is many other people not saying they disagree. Evil is passivity, inertia, selfishness, greed, cynicism -- all the things we have words for. Evil is not Hitler -- or not only Hitler. Evil is everything that permitted him to be evil.
Recent attempts by the entertainment industry -- CBS, Fox and the BBC -- to deal with Hitler as a human being have been beaten back by outraged critics. It's a pity. After all, the more we know about the man and his times, the more we can appreciate how they were a match for each other. The man is gone -- but evil, as always, lives on.
Have some lemonade.