Hitler as artist . . . Hitler as artist . . . Damn. So much for the ol' "summarize plot, tease overpaid actors, pontificate wildly" formula. Reviewing Max -- about the wonder years of Der Führer (Noah Taylor) and his eponymous, fictional Jewish benefactor Max Rothman (John Cusack) -- looks to be something of a task. Set in 1918 Munich, this confident and powerful directorial debut from Menno Meyjes (co-writer of The Siege) pits good taste against rousing intellectual provocation and, happily, allows both to win. Its issues, however, are not so simply resolved.
At first, Max seems like the ugliest joke ever told. These two depressed World War I veterans walk into an art gallery. One, Rothman, owns the place and revels in creative expression, despite having lost an arm and -- to the chagrin of his doting wife (Molly Parker) -- gained a mistress (Leelee Sobieski). The other, pitiful Hitler, has squat in the way of friends and resources, but wishes to be taken seriously as an artist. The punch line -- occurring after this movie closes -- is that millions of people are tortured and killed.
Tragedy tends to return as farce, but since Mel Brooks already dropped his brilliance on us several years ago, Meyjes takes an exciting, progressive path -- that of the speculator. What if, he asks us, Hitler was once a human being -- one who hated modern art ("The next time I have diarrhea, I'll shit on a canvas and bring it round"), but desperately craved acceptance and attention? What if he developed a tentative friendship with someone like Rothman, despite loathing the art dealer's dubious business practices and apparently decadent lifestyle? And the clincher: What if Rothman gave Hitler the time of day?
Meyjes laces his inherently grim movie with soothing amusements (Rothman and his mom joke that the difference between a Jewish mother and a Rottweiler is that "the Rottweiler eventually lets go"), but he handles his volatile subjects with grace and intelligence. Going in, we know who the monster is, so there's no point in merely martyring Max. Instead, Meyjes makes Max a pushy snob, a hard drinker and chain smoker, an adulterer -- an easy target. Then he gradually unleashes Hitler, letting Max build his confidence, even as the young nobody hones his burgeoning propaganda skills and anti-Semitism. The result is as chilling and fascinating as Philippe Mora's modern Hitler study Snide and Prejudice, and the two films would make a strong double feature, if perhaps not the coziest date.