As an exercise in ethics, people have been known to ponder the morality of going back in time to kill Hitler before he rose to power and committed any crimes against humanity. Some though, to adhere to the polar opposite sort of principles that Hitler espoused, thought a much more effective way to stop him before he started would have been to buy one of his paintings when he was a starving artist after World War I, thus sending down a different road. Neat, tidy, and no blood on anyones hands. Of course, the socio-political situation of Germany after its defeat in the self-styled War to End All Wars was such that the loss, one way or another, of one disaffected madman wouldnt necessarily have changed much of anything except the names in the history books. Both issues are dealt with in Menno Meyjes’ MAX, a film that is bound to generate a storm of verbiage for its portrayal of Hitler as the starving artist and his would-be mentor, Jewish gallery owner Max Rothman.
Meyjes’ film deals more with philosophical truth than actual events. He sets up for contrast and comparison two veterans, the well-to-do Max Rothman, a composite of the cultural elite shell-shocked by World War I, andHitler, a homeless corporal with no real future.
Max has a wife (Molly Parker) he adores, an artist mistress (LeeleeSobieski) who diverts him, and an empty sleeve where his right arm used to be, gone in the war along with his dreams of becoming an artist. Having put those ambitions aside, mostly, hes settled for the life of a gallery owner, purveying German expressionism whose raw and dangerous images are a collective cry of a countrys despair. He, like the country, has a weariness, as though the 20th century, less than 20 years old, was already old and creaky and past its prime. Cusak brings a stinging melancholy to the self-deprecating wit that Max uses to get through his days of catering to dilettante collectors.
Hitler, who at the time really was in the circumstances portrayed here, is shivering in his barracks because he has no place else to go, no family, no prospects and nothing to live on but his dreams of having his paintings exhibited. This is not the Fuhrer of the Putsch, or Kristalnacht, and certainly not the Hitler of WWII. As Noah Taylor brings him to life, hes a twitchy, puny little man, given to moralizing about smoking between savage bites at his fingernails. His eyes, though, shadowed in dark circles are angry with the violence of a trapped animal that is capable of anything. As Max says at one point while trying to encourage Hitlers painting, You’re not the easiest man to like. But then he says something that would make no sense if they both hadn’t gone through the war only a mile or so apart, He says, But I’m going to try. He makes the mistake of seeing them as having some sort of bond forged on the battlefield.
It’s a neat metaphor. There really was no way to fathom the depths of discontent bubbling away among the poor. With the economy in ruins after the disastrous Treaty of Versailles saddled Germany with a war debt whose sum was greater than all the money in the country, the population who saw their money swallowed up by inflation and their leaders seemingly colluding with those responsible, it was, in hindsight, inevitable that rebellion would foment, the only question was would it be a Bolshevik revolution or something new. When anti-Semitic propaganda sprouts up under the auspices of the army, people are ready to believe it, not because, as the film shows, silly puppet shows are used to illustrate its points, not because it teaches that the Aryan race is superior because it is descended from spacemen, but because it tells them that the crushing poverty in which they live is not their fault. That if only they get rid of the Jews, everything will be alright again. It’s a simple solution that turns into the Final Solution. And Hitler, brought into the movement as a mouthpiece for the politicos, attracted only by their willingness to pay him in a country there were no jobs for him, could just as easily have been someone else. And that, in the final analysis, is the most damning point the film makes.
There are moments of stark irony unfolded with understated but devastating editing to bring the full force of the message across. We see the comfortable life Max and his family enjoys, the easy affection and the refined sensibility. Cut to those barracks where Hitler lives, populated by other destitute ex-soldiers, discussing the rightness of the Czars assassination by the Bolsheviks. Cut back to the smiling faces in Max’s house that in twenty years or so will be shipped in cattle cars to death camps. Another sequence shows Hitler inciting a crowd against the Jews and intercuts it with Max and his family praying in a synagogue. The congregation is shown as Hitler spews his hatred. Another metaphor. The people seen praying in that synagogue were certainly aware of what was happening, even then. But though the read the stories in the paper and saw the propaganda everywhere, metaphorically screaming at them, it didnt sink in.
MAX is a thoughtful and thought-provoking film. It is also a brave film, showing Hitler as a pathetic cog in a larger machine hurtling inevitably towards the Holocaust. And yet, it’s important and disturbing for just that reason. Putting the blame on one person and ignoring the circumstances that allowed him to seize power lets us off too easily.