Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Film #89: Max

In this interview, conducted by the excellent Dark City Dame at Noirish City (where she's kindly invited me to discuss my thirty favorite movies of the 2000s all throughout the month of November 2008), we talk about the incredible film Max.

Dean: Hi, Dame!!

DarkCityDame: Hello! Dean, I’m glad that you’re able to join me for day 3 of our look at your countdown to number one of your 30 best films of the 2000s.

Dean: Sure. It's our little project together!

DarkCityDame: Okay! What is the name of the #28 film we're discussing today?

Dean: Well, it came out in 2002 and it's called Max. It was made by Menno Meyjes, who was the writer of the scripts for Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and Empire of the Sun, two pretty good Spielberg movies from the 1980s. It's an incredible work and even though its subject matter sounds pretty downbeat, it's actually quite entertaining. John Cusack stars in it as Max Rothman, a German/Jewish WWI veteran living with his large family in Germany after the war. It's the 1930s and, having been an artist before he lost an arm in the service, he's now trading in modern art to the rich and powerful in Berlin. And during this time, he befriends a young starving artist named Adolf Hitler, played by Noah Taylor (best known for his role as the young David Helfgott in the 1996 film Shine). And it's this tenuous friendship that's at the center of the film. Cusack is great in it; it's his single best performance (though I love him in The Grifters and Say Anything). But he's warm, generous, funny, intelligent, tasteful and at the same time distasteful in this movie. And he gets to deliver a line I bet you never thought you’d hear in any movie: "Hitler, come on--I'll buy you a lemonade!" Noah Taylor, meanwhile, delivers one of most powerful supporting performances I’ve seen recently. His Hitler is jittery, deparate, nerdy, discomforted, lazy and driven to megolomania. He’s superb.

DarkCityDame: So, does Max center around Hitler as a young struggling artist? Or does it deal with his effort to gain power? While reading an article about the film on the blog site Blunt Review, Emily Blunt wonders if Hitler were a successful artist, would he have walked a different path?

Dean: Well, it follows Hitler, still a corporal in the German army, as he battles, really, two different urges: the urge to keep up with the changing times in the art world, and the urge to be a propagandist for the more radical, anti-Semitic arm of the Army he'd already given so much of his life to. One of the great things about Max is that it humanizes Hitler so that we can see what led him down the dark road that he eventually took. For this reason, the Jewish community blasted the movie before they saw it back in 2002. However, once they did see it, they were convinced it was a deeply moral film that wasn't necessarily sympathetic to Hitler, but does recognize that, despite his monsterous acts, he was in fact one of us. John Cusack, also a producer on the film, said it best: “By understanding somebody who is evil on human terms, you can understand evil a little bit more and how it happens, and prevent it from happening again. It's the exact opposite of exploiting mass murder and the Holocaust. Hitler was such a coward and a liar and repressed sexually, and all those things. He really wanted to be an artist but he didn't have the capacity to be honest with himself."

DarkCityDame: What do you think he meant when he said, "He really wanted to be an artist, but he didn't have the capacity to be honest with himself.”

Dean: In the movie, Max Rothman keeps trying to get Hitler to reveal more of his innermost fears and desires on the canvas—as any real artist should do in their work. But Hitler is just too screwed up inside to do it. He's completely repressed on all fronts--mostly due to his extreme anger at the lowliness of his economic position. But he's also obsessed with traditional German ideals of what constitutes great art--that means paintings of battles, mountainsides, animals, and other “traditionally” beautiful objects. However, in the time period in which Max is set, this is all extremely dated stuff--what Max calls "kitsch,” which basically means corny. Ironically, Max is ultimately most intrigued by Hitler's drawings of his ideal Germany--the Germany that became controlled by the Nazis, and ultimately resulted in Max's death. It's in these art pieces that Max sees Hitler's true creative potential. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that Hitler's designs--the structures, roads, uniforms and symbols of the Nazi party--ARE some of the 20th Century's most enduring artworks. We all like movies dealing with Nazis because the Nazis wore great Hitler-designed uniforms. The only problem is, of course, is that they still represent the onward march of abject horror and unwarrented hate.

DarkCityDame: After seeing Max, what do you think, Dean? Would Hitler have walked a different path if he had been successful as an artist? Or was Hitler just "plain evil?” Could anything have changed his horrid destiny?

Dean: It's hard to say. But I think it's entirely possible he would have been an acceptable man, or at least not a powerful one, had he sold a painting or two. His hatred of the Jews came from his jealousy of their deserved success in business, education, and family. Had he had a taste of achievement as a painter, I think he would have never even considered a career in politics and, of course, the world now would be a different place. One of the amazing qualities of the film is how it illustrates this so cleverly. It's the decade's greatest "What If?" movie. It totally fascinates us with the idea that, had this one little man found something to hold on to besides hate, there would have been so much misery and bloodshed averted. As you watch the movie as see, for instance, the gatherings at the art gallery Max owns, or the parties that his wealthy family throws, it's interesting to think that all the people in attendence would eventually probably be victims of this unknown artist!

DarkCityDame: Wow! That is unbelieveable!

Dean: Yeah, it's an amazingly creative movie that just had to be made. I want to point out here that the film is just as much about the intriguing, fictional character of Max Rothman as it is about Hitler. The scenes examing Max's work ethics and his masterly family life are just as riveting as anything in the film. Meyje's really get us on this man's page and convinces us to love him, with his obvious passions for modernity ("Newness really does it for me, Hitler," he says, smoking one of his many cigarettes--which if one thinks about it, is the only choice Max can make about his one-armed life on his own; smoking, drinking and thinking are the only things he can do without asking for someone's help). This is unquestionably Cusack's finest foray into film--his most complete character.

DarkCityDame: Dean, I wonder why I’ve only now just heard about this film?

Dean: Yeah, it’s very surprising that Max didn't get more notice in 2002. Not one single Oscar nomination, even though it was released in December. I think people had it out for the movie without even catching it. If they had seen it, it would have garnered a Best Actor, Supporting Actor and Screenplay nomination easily. But people largely avoided it because, again, it humanized Adolf Hitler. Then we have to recognize it’s an indie film, so maybe a lot of people just don’t know that it exists. I also think, among the ones who were aware of it, most didn't know what it was about. If it had been called Max and Adolf, then it might have made more of a splash. But then it would've sounded like a buddy movie, which in fact, it is, in a bizarre way.

DarkCityDame: Oh!

Dean: Another "what if.."!

DarkCityDame: Dean, is that it?

Dean: I think so. A good ending there.

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