Dutch-born Menno Meyjes has had a prosperous career working as a screenwriter under the wing of Steven Spielberg, penning the Oscar-nominated “The Color Purple,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “Empire of the Sun.” So it’s surprising to see Meyjes make his directorial debut with a script on Hitler, always a hot-potato topic. No matter how you portray old Adolf, some group will raise a very vocal protest. Meyjes spoke to The Japan Times about the reaction to his film, and his reasons for making it.

There are various cinematic images of Weimar Germany — the obvious one being “Cabaret” — but it seems like you were trying to avoid that.

That’s what I’ve been saying to everyone! It’s one of the reasons why “Max” was oddly received, because it doesn’t sample from other movies. I know how to do that, but I didn’t want to. Even what we were doing with the camera was very anti-what’s-happening-now, in terms of moving it all the time, etc.

I’m interested in what drew you to this topic, given that any noncaricatured portrayal of Hitler will always be controversial.

I opened this book, and looked at these drawings that [Hitler] had done, and I thought, Jesus Christ, he actually was an artist. I always knew that, but then it hit me: My God, he was one of us! And you think, wow, this guy was once just another hustler on the make, looking for his big chance. And, at one point, he actually was a normal human — he wasn’t that monster. His art was an act of self-creation. And I thought maybe it was easier for this guy to be the monster than a human.

What’s interesting is you show how he takes this idea of self-expression that Max is forcing on him, like performance art, and moves it into a different theater. It shows the origin of what we have today in so many countries: Politicians doing theater and performance for a mass audience, which bears very little relation to public policy.

There was a moment in the presidential debate between Gore and Bush, where they were asked about education. And Gore went into his policy-wonk mode, where he actually went into the details about something, and I could see Bush behind him realizing he’d won. Because Bush displays it like a movie star. Do you realize that now you cannot get a shot of the president that hasn’t been approved? It’s always their set, their lighting, their camera set-ups. . . . it’s really amazing. But it’s not just what Max said. Hitler was certainly aware of Russian Constructivism, which is the first time that modern art was being used to support politics. Go look at “Mein Kampf” — a hideous piece of writing — and look in the index under “D” for Dadaism, you’ll find all of his views on it. The avant-garde and fascism were two runners dashing for the finish line, and the question was who would get there first. Both of them were completely antibourgeois movements, but from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Did the irony of juxtaposing the character of Max — a Jewish, progressive radical — with Hitler appeal to you?

Well . . . the methodology of the movie was “It’s 1918 for everyone.” This guy [Max] cannot see the future. This [Hitler] is just some schlemiel standing in front of him, that he feels vaguely guilty about, that he has a shared experience with. If he realizes anything, it’s that this guy is incredibly unhappy, and unhappy people are ipso facto dangerous. So if he can help him, great, but if not, so what, he tried. . . . It’s like, if you and I were coming out of a restaurant, and some bag-person came up to us, and I turned to you and said, “You know what, dude? Fifteen years from now this guy’s going to be president.”

Noah Taylor was an inspired choice; what were you looking for him to bring to the role?

On one hand, it had to be the Hitler no one knew, and on the other hand, at the very end, when he gives that speech, he merges with the historical Hitler, and you’ve also got to believe that. For the movie to work, you had to buy into this character, and you even had to feel bad for him! People say, “How could you humanize Hitler?” But I always say it’s his very humanity that you should fear. My casting director suggested Noah, and I was familiar with his work, so we brought him in. He then proceeded to give the worst audition ever — horrendous. But there was one moment, one look that he had, where he says, “You saved my life, Rothman.” And there was something in his eyes that made you actually believe that.

Cusack is just as good, though. I think this might be the performance of his career.

Noah gives an unbelievable performance, but I’m still drawn to Johnny’s quietness. That was amazing, almost a spiritual feat. My big worry was, how are people going to believe [the friendship between Hitler and Rothman]? Because it’s held together by such tender strands. But it’s Johnny, and Johnny’s eyes, this casual grandeur. . . . It’s indescribable.

How did the film play in Germany?

They won’t take it in Germany! They had a big press screening, and they adored it! But it never got distribution in the end. Of course you want everybody to get it in the way you got the movie, but some people get it, some don’t, and that’s all you can ask for. The thing that really bugs me is when it’s just reviewed as a “what if” movie. I mean, it’s the very fact that Hitler failed as an artist that informs the creation of the Third Reich. It’s the residue of failure.

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