Friday, December 27, 2002

Max / **** (2002)

The moviegoer has come to expect almost anything from the filmmaker in these recent times, but it is doubtful one could have ever anticipated a movie that tackles the maniacal persona of Adolf Hitler on such an objective and fearless level. In Meyno Meyjes's "Max," which is less about the Max Rothman character than it is about the future German dictator, the impression is given that Hitler was not always the demonic figure we consider him to have been, but at one time simply an eccentric human being who was pushed beyond the borders of sanity and never able to find his way back. Historically, the movie probably follows accurately with what has always been said about him prior to World War II, but will any of that matter to the viewer? To discuss him in any context other than being evil is still quite risky; this is, after all, the most despicable living creation that existed during the 20th century.

The true significance of art, however, just as the movie's characters repeatedly inform us, is to challenge perceptions and create chaos, and that's exactly what "Max" courageously does in the end. The movie is an extraordinary and fascinating experience, alarmingly captivating to watch as it forces us to deal with the likelihood that a man responsible for so much death and catastrophe could so easily exist in a respectable society. No, his heinous deeds are not the object of speculation—and rightfully so—but is it too hard to accept that there was a point in his life when the dark side wasn't completely in control?

To understand all of this froma plausible perspective, the picture cleverly devises the impression that Max Rothman, a Jewish art dealer and former artist played by John Cusack, is the narrative center when he is actually just a spectator. That's not to say Rothman doesn't have weight of his own, however; at the opening of "Max," which takes place following World War I, we are introduced to him as he is hopping through an unfurnished structure on the low-rent end of town the day before he is to host an art show there, observing and selecting appropriate pieces to display during the highly publicized event. Max's spot of employment may suggest a certain lack of prestige, but in reality, he is a very secure and wealthy man whose place in German society hasn't dwindled the least since he was a major painter himself, a time which is no longer sensible since he lost one of his arms in the recent war.

Towards the close of the art show, he is briefly introduced to a young German soldier known as Adolf Hitler (played by Noah Taylor), whose shy and reclusive behavior is the kind that Max believes breeds the most successful artists: the kind that can completely reshape modern consciousness. Keeping that prospect in mind even when his new acquaintance rallies large audiences to publicly rant about the state of the nation following the Treaty of Versailles, Max offers the aspiring artist insight, knowledge, and guidance into the medium, encouraging Hitler to put a lid on his evolving views of German purity for fear that it might compromise his potential artistic integrity. Hitler, of course, never made it that far into the atmosphere of expression, but through a gradual (and sometimes accidental) series of misinterpreted lectures that Rothman uses on his student, we see his ideology slowly evolve from anti-Semitic to all-out radical, in the process foreshadowing the buried psyche that would eventually manifest and take Europe into its bleakest historical period to date.

The portrait of the dictator, however, could not have been nearly as intense or riveting had the role fallen into the hands of an actor incapable of disappearing into the substance, and "Max" makes its greatest leap of faith by casting Noah Taylor as the emotionally-unbalanced madman. Taylor is unforgettably convincing in this material, so raw and merciless in his dramatic thrust that we never doubt he is playing a certified lunatic. No, not even during crucial scenes in which Hitler's rabid ideology is shared with a public audience via violently conveyed speeches on the misdeeds of Jews or the political downfall of his homeland. "Politics is the new art!", he concludes towards the end of one such blaring harangue, illustrating the distorted merger of Rothman's ideas with his own in a way that is both powerful and unnerving. Arguably, it has been a long while since the presence of evil was so effectively conveyed on the screen—perhaps the last person to accomplish this feat was Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs"—but this generally overlooked thespian finds that strand of torment and never lets it go. This is one of the most startling performances of a historical figure that has ever been seen on film.

Of course, the virtue of seeing "Max" in all its glory doesn't end there. Even though he is greatly upstaged by the villain, Cusack should be noted for his charismatic portrayal of the film's protagonist, a genuine and sensible authority figure who doesn't ever quite realize the rage inside his pupil that can be unleashed purely by accident (and despite the arguments of other critics, the Max character is not directly targeted as a blame factor for Hitler's ruthless transformation). To top it all off, the movie is a towering technical achievement, sagely pulling scenes together so that the thread of evil doesn't always suffocate the presence of good (one such sequence in which Hitler's violent rant against Jews is cross-edited with shots of Jews gathering at a temple to pray for perseverance is particularly unforgettable). Certain focal points are stressed more than others—the movie doesn't really have much patience in observing the more minor characters—but that's not a distraction nor a quibble. In the end, all it takes for one person to pass beyond the reaches of reality is one's powerlessness to recognize a veiled threat of annihilation, and "Max" approaches that sentiment wisely and respectably enough to be one of the best films of 2002.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
John Cusack: Max Rothman
Noah Taylor: Adolf Hitler
Leelee Sobieski: Liselore Von Peltz
Molly Parker: Nina Rothman
Ulrich Thomsen: Captain Mayr

Produced by Sidney Blumenthal, John Cusack, Jonathan Debin, Andras Hamori, Fran├žois Ivernel, Lacia Kornylo, Cameron McCracken, Tom Ortenberg; Directed and Screenwritten by Meyno Meyjes

Drama/War (US); Rated R for language; Running Time - 106 Minutes

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