writer-director menno meyjes, a Spielberg associate (screenplay credit on The Color Purple, uncredited work on Empire Of The Sun, story credit on Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade), makes his directorial debut at the advanced age of 48 with a story about Hitler before he came to power. It's set shortly after the first world war, when the future führer was trying to make his way as an artist. You can't accuse Meyjes of lacking ambition. Hitler's a subject so investigated that one wouldn't think there's much left for a dramatist to paw over. There are biographical studies, vast histories of the events leading up to the second world war, films ranging from straight Hollywood biographies to Aleksandr Sokurov's Moloch, portrayals from Richard Basehart's to Dick Shawn's.
Meyjes looks at the young artist and his relationship with Max Rothman, a Jewish artist who lost an arm in the trenches and now works as an art dealer in the artistic ferment of Weimar Germany. Through the young Australian actor Noah Taylor (Shine, Almost Famous) as Hitler and John Cusack as Rothman, Meyjes shows us both a milieu and the formation of a character.
Meyjes's theory of Hitler falls into the "Nazism as demonic expression of artistic impulse" school. (For a catalogue of Hitler theories, see Ron Rosenbaum's exhaustive Hitler historiography, Explaining Hitler, published by HarperCollins.) Specifically, Meyjes shows us a Hitler who accepts the "stabbed-in-the-back" explanation for Germany's defeat in the first world war, and this, combined with a nascent anti-Semitism and his failure to find success as an artist, determined the path he was to take. Taylor's Hitler even shows Cusack's Max sketches anticipating the grandiosity of Arno Breker's sculptures.
It's a duff bit of history. People don't suddenly become rabid anti-Semites in their 20s unless the seeds have been planted long before. On the other hand, the collision of two superb actors in a fatal drama offers a compulsively watchable counterpoint between Cusack's suave knowingness and Taylor's spluttering, near impotent rage.
Excellent supporting performances as well by Molly Parker and Leelee Sobieski as Max's wife and mistress respectively. I feel compelled to mention Sobieski because I failed to do so in the large feature NOW ran on Cusack and the movie during the last film festival. Sobieski noticed and called me on it when I interviewed her.
An advance warning: for a grander take on the subject, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's seven-hour Our Hitler -- A Film From Germany will play one show at Cinematheque Ontario on Sunday, February 9. email@example.com
MAX written and directed by Menno Meyjes, produced by Andras Hamori, with John Cusack, Noah Taylor and Leelee Sobieski. 105 minutes. An Alliance-Atlantis release. Opens Friday (January 17). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 71. Rating: NNNN