||We've had plenty of "What if?" historical movies, but "Max" is rather different--it asks "What if--but not?" The peculiar circumstance derives from the decision of first-time writer-director Menno Meyjes to posit the notion that perhaps the young Adolf Hitler, after returning to Munich from the western front after the German surrender in 1918, was encouraged in his aspirations to become a painter by a Jewish art dealer, and that it was a merely matter of chance--growing anti-Semitism which targeted his potential patron--that led him to become the leader of the fascist movement instead. The way in which Meyjes fashions this historical fantasy is impressive--the film is visually striking, the dialogue polished, and the cast intriguing. In the final analysis, though, "Max" leaves a rather sour taste, not so much because it portrays Hitler in a more sympathetic light than usual--as a tormented youth drawn to a horrifying political career only after his true (and benign) ambition was dashed--but because, given what we know of his tyranny, its ironic observation that, but for an accident of history, things might have turned out differently comes across as a rather cheap joke.
The central figure, however, isn't really Hitler but the title character, Max Rothman (John Cusack), a well-educated, once-promising Jewish painter who'd lost an arm while serving in the German army and now sells other artists' work from a Munich warehouse. Max is a cultivated, elegant fellow, with both a charming wife (Molly Parker) and a much younger mistress (Leelee Sobieski); he's gained recognition as a supporter of the sort of harsh modernism that characterized the Weimar Republic, but is obviously a man tormented by the realization that the war cut short his own dreams of an artistic career. By accident he bumps into Hitler (Noah Taylor), a "little corporal" who remains in the army barracks simply because he has no other prospects but still harbors his pre-war desire to gain recognition as a painter. Adolf is emaciated and desperately shabby; he's also sneeringly rigid in his views and utterly humorless, and his canvases are painfully unimaginative. Rothman nonetheless takes pity on the fellow and urges him to move past conventional watercolors to express his inner rage in blunter, more radical paintings despite the young man's contempt for the new movements Max admires. At the same time, however, Captain Mayr (Ulrich Thomsen) sees in Hitler a political diamond in the rough; introducing the young man to authoritarian ideas and the movement of virulent anti-Semitism, the officer represents an alternative future from the one Rothman proposes. The culmination of the piece comes when Hitler reaches a crossroads: on the one hand he savors his first triumph in the public arena, when he's thrust before a crowd by the captain and wins them over with a brutally anti-Semitic rant--not, it would seem, out of actual conviction on his part as much as sheer rhetorical opportunism. But he's already determined to opt out of politics in favor of art: Rothman has seen some of his sketches for the paraphernalia of a new militaristic regime Nazi emblems, in fact) and found them so visually intriguing that he intends to arrange an exhibition of them. However, the meeting at which the two men are to discuss Hitler's debut doesn't go as expected--largely as a result of the very political movement Adolf has himself helped spawn--and the rest, as they say, is history.
This is a clever scenario, which might easily have been played in a broad, humorously tasteless manner (in the style, let's say, of "The Producers"). Whether it would have worked in such a guise is moot, though, because Meyjes' approach is very different. He treats the material more cooly, as a combination of period elegance, sharp political-social commentary, and bitterly ironic commentary on the contingent nature of human affairs. It's a mixture which works better in the conception than it does in the execution. It's difficult to engage with the characters not simply because one of them is Adolf Hitler, but because as written they never escape the feeling of being stagy contrivances, created to serve as pawns in a philosophical argument, rather than real people. And the actors, able as they are, don't rescue them from artificiality. Cusack is, as always, personable and intense, but he's never convincing as a young man living in 1918 Munich; he makes no attempt at the proper accent, and always seems weirdly contemporary. Even had he been more plausible in the part, however, he couldn't have made some of the scenes work--a brief sketch he puts on for potential customers revealing, in an especially cutting way, his attitude toward the militarism that took his arm, for example, is a serious dramatic mistake. Taylor, the Australian who was so impressive as the youthful David Helfgott in "Shine," tries on the other hand to build a physically credible Hitler: he works hard at the accent, the bearing, and the overall appearance, and he's actually quite successful. Yet for all the script's efforts to humanize Hitler, the figure remains largely a caricature, and the suggestion that he might have been a mere opportunist rather than a true believer is just too facile to carry any weight. The supporting cast is adequate but unremarkable. Ben Vanos' production design is very impressive, though, especially in its canny use of modernistic interiors and artwork characteristic of the time, and the costume work of Dien Van Straalen is especially fine as well. Lajos Koltai's frequently exquisite camerawork captures it all beautifully.
In the final analysis, however, for all its intelligence and elegance, "Max" winds up seeming just a little too clever. It's like an elaborate joke told by a precocious adolescent, with a punchline that--given the history it's dealing with--can't help but seem rather tacky.