(Menno Meyjes, 2002)
With this entry, I’m proud to participate once again in the 9th Annual White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Philip Tatler IV at Diary of a Country Pickpocket.
To paraphrase the Farrellys, there’s something about Hitler. For more than 75 years, he remains the undisputed heavyweight champion of evil incarnate. Makes you wonder if Vlad the Impaler was thoughtful enough to send a card for letting him off the historical hook.
Artists over time have long been fascinated with the man, or rather fascinated with his legacy. Approaching his character in fiction is tricky though. If filmmakers choose to employ his true nature, Hitler is often used as a minor supporting character, because there’s little nuance to his very public persona of Monster. Many find it easier to take liberties by aping the dictator’s anger or enormous ego, like Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Those few movies that attempt to humanize Hitler are always rather off-putting, since inhumanity is sort of his calling card. In The Producers, Mel Brooks acknowledged how the revolting notion of the Fuhrer finding love could turn “Springtime for Hitler” into a beacon of bad taste.
Max chooses the road less taken and examines the future Fuhrer, as portrayed by Australian actor Noah Taylor, the lovesick protagonist of The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting, as an insecure 3o-year-old veteran at a turning point in his life. He resides in Germany just after World War I, during the formation of the Weimar Republic, in which the country is trying to rebuild and reestablish itself, while trying to recover from the shock and scars of recent battle. With this film, writer-director Menno Meyjes concocts a hypothetical situation usually reserved for History Channel programming: Could the second World War and all its atrocities have been avoided? And the film’s conclusion? Yes, but only if Adolf was a better painter.
It’s one of the enormous leaps in logic that ultimately sink Max. There is some talent on display here, but the heavy-handed execution is indicative of a first-time director over his skis.
Hitler pursues a latent passion for fine art when, unable to find work or satisfaction among his social peers, he is drawn to a fictional modern art dealer named Max Rothman (John Cusack). Max is a fellow veteran of the German army, and it’s revealed that the two actually fought alongside each other in bloody battles at Ypres, though in different regiments. Max has had most of his right arm tragically amputated in battle, and subsequently, has lost his ability to paint, as if his entire life were a too-neat metaphor for unrealized potential…. or something.
The clanky character construction doesn’t end there. The two men attempt to nurture the natural bond among soldiers who’ve been “in the shit”, but it’s a tenuous bond, since they’re much different soldiers, and Hitler is, well, kind of a jerk. He’s straight-edge: smug about his vegetarianism, and full of disdain for those who drink or smoke, which Max does constantly. Disarmed, Rothman is left to awkwardly offer him a glass of lemonade instead.
To make matters even more uncomfortable, the fabricated Rothman comes from a wealthy family and Hitler is woefully poor. Max feels guilty about this disparity, and works hard to fuel young Adolf with compassion, and provide funding to work on his painting, in order to keep him from pursuing a budding interest in politics. You see, Hitler’s also receiving money from a growing National Socialist Workers Party for ranting slanted anti-Semitic dogma for dollars. Oh, you guys: Max is Jewish. Awkward!
Meyjes’ film proposes, that at least at this point, Hitler’s anti-Semitism isn’t fully-formed or perhaps even real, but is rooted in his own insecurities, borne out of an obsession with being a have-not. Which then evolved into an inflated perception of a Jewish class of wealth, intelligence, and influence. Which caused him to go on and on at length to neighbors and acquaintances, using incendiary hate speech to claim a certain cut of people were responsible for his country’s slow descent into hell in a handbasket, not unlike that one guy on Facebook you’ve long since unfriended.
The film does go a long way towards explaining how Hitler’s passion could easily have been tweaked into expressive creation, rather than destruction. But the portrayal of the alternative art world is pretty sloppy. There’s a particularly awful sequence where Max attempts to expose the evils of political propaganda through performance art. His goal is to expose such propaganda for driving a naive populace into war by convincing them that any wartime deeds and sacrifices would be nobel ones. He finishes the performance this by re-blowing off his own arm (in this case, a detached mannequin arm, shown floating in mid-air, gripping a paintbrush near a sign indicating “What Might Have Been”) , just before he is fed into an oversized war-machine meat-grinder. Mm-mm, that modern art sure makes you think! Especially if your thoughts drift to how German sausage is actually made.
While he looks the part, Taylor is inconsistent in his portrayal of the pre-Fuhrer. He’s creepily convincing in quietly brooding moments, less so when he takes on the public-speaking persona. This is not entirely his fault, as it’s clear the actors were given specific instruction not to adopt a German dialect. So, Taylor occasionally slips into an Australian accent, and Cusack comes off as little more than the High Fidelity guy minus a limb.
Max isn’t terribly interested in factual history; it’s firmly planted in the world of What Might Have Been. The speculative plot reflects its own frivolousness as Max Rothman’s efforts ultimately fail to sway Hitler from his destiny. The soldier will become the dictator; atrocities will happen; and savage war will break out. At least until Brad Pitt and his Basterds can kick enough Nazi ass to put a more satisfying end to the whole thing.