Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Japanese title: Adolf no Gashu
Director: Menno Meyjes
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

With his debut feature, “Max,” director Menno Meyjes takes us back to the Germany of 1918, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Demobilized veterans, some horribly wounded, wander the frosty streets, jobless and dispirited. Poverty is endemic, resentment roils, especially after the Treaty of Versailles imposes crippling, humiliating reparations on the defeated nation. Amid this turmoil, a small figure wanders the streets in a threadbare overcoat, a portfolio tucked under his arm: It’s Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor), just back from the war, and at this point in his life, literally a starving artist.

On the other side of town is Max Rothman (John Cusack), an art dealer running a gallery in an abandoned factory, selling radical Futurist works. Unlike Hitler, Max came back to a loving wife, and a wealthy and supportive family, but like Hitler, he fought in the trenches at Ypres, where he lost an arm in battle.

From this shared experience, a tentative, tense friendship is formed between these two very different men. Hitler hates modern art (“The next time I have diarrhea, I’ll shit on a canvas and bring it over to you”), he sneers at Max who’s championing the expressive, wild works of Grosz, Klee and Kandinsky. Max is unabashedly decadent, forgetting the war through wine and women, while Hitler chooses not to forget, his rage egged on by rightwing army officers fomenting reactionary rebellion. Max believes the war was pointless and horrific; Hitler sees it as glorious, necessary. And then there’s the real kicker: Max is Jewish.

This may seem a bit too “high concept,” but Meyjes makes it work. Starting with the historical fact that the young Hitler was indeed a failed artist (his conservative, bourgeois tastes ran against the grain of Dadaism, Futurism and other bold new leaps), Meyjes, who also wrote the script, goes on to imagine the milieu and Hitler’s place in it. The film asks, why did Hitler give up on art? What drove him into politics? Or were these two careers, in fact, more closely related than one might suspect?

The premise “Max” works with is a radical one, and the contrast drawn with Max, the idea that Hitler may have been friends with a Jew, may seem too much to some. But the film’s logic is unassailable: The Hitler of 1918 was looking for a break. If a Jewish art gallery owner would give it to him, he’d swallow his bile and work with it. If it was the army-backed rabble-rousing gig that paid off, then he’d blow that way instead. His anti-Semitism is no less frightening for being portrayed as opportunism as much as deeply held belief — any good demagogue goes with the material that works.

More than any other recent film, “Max” could truly be called “Shakespearean,” in the sense that it takes an icon of history — a la “Julius Caesar” or “Richard III” — and applies a bit of creative license, in order to produce a drama that will uncover some truths of human nature. In “Max,” it’s the response of men to a brutal war and crippling defeat, how they deal with their bitterness, their regrets, their inchoate frustration and sense of smallness, the self-negation that comes from having come so close to being just one more casualty on a list numbering in the millions.

Fantastic performances by Cusack and Taylor (“Shine”) make the film work and the relationship seem plausible. Cusack’s Max has suave self-confidence and coolly cynical wit, but his breezy attitude — whether it’s charming the wealthy into buying disturbing new art, or smooth-talking his way between his wife, Nina (Molly Parker), and his mistress, Liselore (Leelee Sobieski) — masks a deeper frustration and aimlessness. Gone with his right arm were his own dreams of painting.

Taylor has an even harder task in portraying the ultimate symbol of ruthless, brutal tyranny — at a moment in his life when he was utterly powerless. Taylor nails it just right, creating a pathetic, needy figure who is so abrasive and hectoring that he even alienates those who are trying to give him a break, like Max. Elmore Leonard put it best once when asked about the villains in his own novels: “They’ve got to be human before they turn criminal.” Taylor does just this. He manages a very quiet murmur of gratitude when Max gives him a commission, much-needed money for food and shelter. “You saved my life, Rothman,” he says, and we see that somewhere beneath this man’s glower is a glimmer of something that could redeem him.

The viewer hopes against all hope that the charismatic Max can take young Adolf down a different path. Such is the power of Meyjes’ film that we allow ourselves to believe this illusion. Of course, Hitler eventually finds his true calling, working up mobs of embittered Germans into a vengeful, racist frenzy, and Max winding up a victim of his belief that one can retreat into art and forget about politics.

As a study of historical flux — the many possibilities that existed at a crucial moment in time — “Max” is a fascinating story, but it’s also one that, through its portrayal of politics as performance art, is intensely relevant to the here and now.

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