Springtime for Hitler

John Cusack, doing his finest Nicolas Cage imitation in <i>Max</i>.

John Cusack, doing his finest Nicolas Cage imitation in Max.

Rated 3.0

In Menno Meyjes’ movie Max, John Cusack plays Max Rothman, a German ex-soldier who has lost his right arm in the closing days of World War I. Once a gifted artist but now unable to paint, Max stays in the Munich art scene by becoming a dealer. He sets up his gallery in a locomotive works where production has dwindled as the war has gotten worse for Germany.

Now, Max strides up and down the floors of his warehouse gallery, a cigarette between the languid fingers of his left hand, his right sleeve hanging limp and empty, as he orders the hanging of paintings while a train engine is being built in an adjoining hall.

Max has a wife named Nina (Molly Parker) and two small children; he seems devoted to them all, even as he is similarly fond of his mistress Liselore (Leelee Sobieski). He has well-to-do-parents, talented friends and the support and stability of his fellow German Jews. This is what he came home to from the war, and it sustains him. So, his compassion is tweaked when he meets another soldier returning from the war. This man, a lowly corporal whereas Max had been a captain, has no family, no friends and nothing to cushion his fall from military duty; he wants to be an artist, but it seems he doesn’t have much talent, either. His name is Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor).

Boy, talk about changing the subject. From the time we see Cpl. Hitler glowering up at Max in the Munich snow, Max becomes a secondary character in his own movie. Meyjes writes that side of the story as if Max were still the central character, and Cusack sharply portrays his jaded, lost-generation intellectual cynicism. When Liselore asks him if they have “any future,” he is not sanguine: “I’ve seen the future,” he says, and we glance involuntarily at his empty sleeve, “been kicked in the teeth by it. The future has no future.”

But it helps nothing. Knowing the mischief Hitler is going to be up to for the next 20 years or so is just too powerful a tease, and we keep wanting to get back to that sour little grub with the dirty face, bad teeth, ill-fitting clothes and ugly ideas. When he stalks away from a barrack-room discussion of the inferiority of the Jews, he says, “I don’t like emotional anti-Semitism. The Jewish problem is too important for emotions. It should be handled by the government—like public health and sewage.” In this dexterously blood-curdling little line, Meyjes encapsulates the mental landscape of Germany and Austria in the first quarter of the 20th century. The idea of Hitler as an aberration is not for Meyjes. He understands that it was only a matter of time before someone looked around and said, “Jeez, where did all these Jews come from? We oughta just kill ’em all,” and found an audience happy to go along.

Meyjes swaddles his story in irony like a butcher salting pork. Think of it: The closest thing this Hitler has to a real friend is Max Rothman, a Jewish intellectual art dealer who hates his paintings—but who at least takes Hitler seriously enough to tell him that his ideas are a load of crap and that he should channel his anger and alienation away from crackpot political theories and onto canvas.

But Hitler has had his epiphany: Max, so sophisticated and blasé, is already behind the curve. When Max scoffs at Hitler’s drawings of torchlight rallies and monolithic skyscrapers topped by stone eagles, Max offers a left-handed compliment about the completeness of this fantasy world. Hitler roars at him. “Politics,” he snarls, “is the new art!” Paintings and charcoal sketches are strictly minor-league. These pictures aren’t Hitler’s fantasies; they are what he is going to do. He hasn’t quite hit on the swastika yet, but he’s on his way.

Max, alas, is on his way, too. When he says the future has no future, he is speaking more truly than he knows—Meyjesian irony again. Sitting here and looking back, we know what Max doesn’t and what Hitler himself is only beginning to sense. In the long run, Hitler’s unstable malice will be his downfall. But in the short run, it’s the urbane, confident, compassionate Max who is on the wrong side of history.