Has the makings of an engrossing tale but the focus is on the wrong character.

Released in 2002, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 23 Jun 2003 by Scott Morris
Max image

Germany post-WW1 wasn't a great place to be. The returning veterans of the brutal war have little to occupy their time with in land ravaged by the battles. Among the survivors of the Great War are Max Rothman (John Cusack), an aspiring artist forced into becoming an art dealer having lost an arm and another aspiring artist, a young corporal named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor).

Hitler returns to nothing, no family, no friends, no job, no home. He takes up residence in the Army barracks where he idles. He wants to turn his hand back to art, but with no money for materials he has to turn to other diversions. His C.O. recognises the single minded obsessions that he displays in his new choice of hobby, politics. Captain Mayr offers to use Hitler as a public speaker drumming up support for the Army's latest cause, provoking unrest over the terms of the Versailles treaty. As it's a paying gig, he agrees.

Max has returned to the warm bosom of his well-off family, and the surname Rothman hasn't spelled it out for you he's Jewish. Max is trying to strike out on his own with his gallery of modern art, in the typically incongruous location of a dilapidated steel mill. He occasionally has to rely on his father to bale him out of a hole but this rankles him. He is marred with a beautiful wife, Nina (Molly Parker), two beautiful kids and a beautiful mistress, one of his clients Liselore Von Peltz (Leelee Sobieski). One day a chance meeting with a portfolio carrying Hitler inspires him to take some of Hitler's work on commission and he starts a guilt-alleviating project of helping the young Corporal to channel his frustrations and single-minded nuttiness into creating works of modern art rather than his increasingly bizarre political beliefs.

Saying that's the extent of the film is doing it a disservice, but it's mainly based on the characters rather than a series of events so in terms of the action it's perhaps accurate. Taylor shows depth to Hitler as his public speaking career progresses, showing the realisation that in times of great depression simple scapegoat and cheap slogans can more than compensate for a lack of a likeable personality. Everyone that meets Hitler hates him, but at his rallies a quick rant against Jews has the dissatisfied Germans in the crown eating out of the palm of his hand. Taylor has a thankless role but fills it with such a sense of unbalanced lunacy when in his ranting that it's difficult to take any of his seemingly more rational conversations seriously, which is surely the point - Hitler was a grade A loon and no amount of painting is going to alleviate that. What if he'd drawn rather than decide to take over the world? It's a thought provoking point but by it's very nature not one that the film can answer, so rather sensibly it doesn't, ending with no net change from his dalliance with Max.

Max image

If it's trying to say Hitler's anti-Semitism is based on one relationship with an art dealer it's ridiculous, and I can't shake the feeling that this is only interesting because it's about the worlds most notorious man, and had it been Joe Bloggs in his place this wouldn't have been made, and certainly wouldn't have garnered this much publicity. Even the publicity it's been getting is ridiculous, presumably written by people who haven't seen it. They're claiming that it humanises Hitler too much, that it shows the lighter, whacky knockabout goofy side of Hitler too much. Even leaving aside the questionable assumption that Hitler was born evil and stayed that way like the very fruits of the devil which seems to be the accepted view, Hitler as shown in Max is a sociopathic hate-monger with no redeeming features whatsoever. I suppose the makers could have added a montage of him torturing puppies to hammer the point home but I like to think director Menno Meyjes is merely crediting his audience with a little intelligence.

Although the odd choice of accents belies this. I'm happy to accept that the filmmakers wanted to have this film in English. Given the number of people that refuse to read subtitles it's vital if it was to have anything more than the arthouse crowd attending it. So everyone speaks English but the accents are all over the shop. The entire Rothman family speak with broad American accents. Some of the soldiers and Max's accountant are Scottish. A few English accents wander by. This is distracting but I'm willing to translate this as correlations of German regional accents. Why then, do Hitler and Captain Mayr speak in English but with a broad Germanic accent? You have to wonder what the intention was, as I can't detect any particular rhyme or reason to who speaks with what accent, so the whole affair becomes immensely distracting and near-surreal, like a Fast Show sketch especially when the odd word of German is thrown in to further confusticate things.

You'll note that so far I've only really spoken about Hitler's character, and unfortunately that's because Max has very little. While he's suitably edgy and neurotic in places, angry and frustrated about his lost limb and the subsequent ruination of his art career, the majority of the film concerns itself with his home life which is pretty tedious to watch. The occasional flashes of Cusack's talent are drowned out by ultimately pointless conversations with his wife and mistress, or doting on his kid which muddies the focus of the film. Is it about Max or Hitler? It tries to do both, slanting towards Max but as Hitler is a far, far more interesting character than Max it's difficult to agree that this was the right direction to head in.

Max image

Again, that's another disservice. Max is an interesting character that isn't given anything interesting to do, his only two moments of incident being his wife confronting him obliquely about his affair and his abject failure at attempting a modern art installation, but not enough emphasis is place on either to make the audience care too much about the bleak ending to the movie, and it's a credit to Cusack that he's made us care about him at all.

It's a deeply flawed film, and in terms of believability it's up there with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but it's certainly entertaining. I have a certain respect for anything that goes out of it's way to challenge the audience and make them think about the progression of a character's thought process going from 'unconventional' to 'tin-foil hat', but in the end it seems to be baiting controversy for controversy's sake. There are things to like here, and the acting is superb, but it all seems like a tragically missed opportunity. It may well provide a topic of conversation for a dinner party, but treated as a film merely having a few nice concepts and scenes give it no excuse to bore us for the remainder of it.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Menno Meyjes
Cast list:
John Cusack (Max Rothman)
Noah Taylor (Adolf Hitler)
Leelee Sobieski (Liselore Von Peltz)
Molly Parker (Nina Rothman)
Ulrich Thomsen (Captain Mayr)