[Screen It]

(2002) (John Cusack, Noah Taylor) (R)

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Drama: A Jewish modern art dealer befriends a troubled but impassioned artist and fellow war veteran by the name of Adolf Hitler.
It's 1918 Munich, and Max Rothman (JOHN CUSACK) is a one-armed war veteran and former artist turned modern art dealer. Married to Nina (MOLLY PARKER) but having a mistress, Liselore Von Peltz (LEELEE SOBIESKI), Max sells his goods from an old locomotive factory and has developed a rather lucrative business for himself.

One day he meets Adolf Hitler (NOAH TAYLOR), a discontented corporal who similarly served in Germany's unsuccessful WWI campaign and is unhappy about how things turned out for his country and himself. He's also an artist and Max sees potential in him, but finds his anti-Semitic rambling a bit disturbing, although he views him as harmless.

Captain Mayr (ULRICH THOMSEN), on the other hand, likes what he hears in Hitler's impassioned views about race and other issues, and wants him to take a course in propaganda. The troubled artist would rather paint, but Mayr suggest that the army could pay for his expenses and thus Hitler agrees.

As he and Max form an unlikely and tenuous friendship and working relationship, Hitler soon begins to realize the power of the combination of art and politics. Displaying early signs of what he'll eventually become, his involvement with Max could swing his life one way or another with the future of his nation and the world hanging in the balance.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Greatness and evil do not exist or originate in a vacuum, as there's always something or someone who's influenced the possessor of either quality. I've always contemplated whether people who knew someone before they went on to great or horrific acts wondered if they positively influenced them or conversely could have stopped or steered the others away from what they ultimately did. It's one of those haunting mind games - particularly in the context of the subsequent bad things - that's nevertheless quite compelling.

Following the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler, his Third Reich and all of the related deaths and atrocities, I'm sure there were those who wondered if, through their earlier acquaintance with him, they could have stopped him or, worse yet, somehow influenced his behavior and mindset.

That's part of the "what if" premise behind "Max," an intriguing dramatic work that stirred up a great deal of controversy before its release. Various vocal groups - before even seeing the film - deemed that it was wrong to humanize a monster such as Hitler by portraying his early or formative years.

Most such groups have since recanted those stances and objections now that they've seen the film. That's because it does not portray the man in a positive light. Instead, it views him - in what's really a lengthy subplot of the main story - as a troubled and frustrated individual deeply affected by his country's defeat in WWI and its subsequent treatment.

As the film's title would suggest, the story is really about Max Rothman. Reportedly a fictitious amalgamation of real life art dealers and others that Hitler may have encountered during his days as a struggling painter, Max might be something of an enigma, but actor John Cusack ("Serendipity," "America's Sweethearts") terrifically portrays that.

A German Jew who served in the defeated military just like Hitler, the character plays out as a symbol of most everyone overlooking the pending danger in the 30-year-old's fervent and rapidly evolving ideology (including realizing that art plus politics equals power).

As written and directed by Menno Meyjes (making his directorial debut after penning the likes of "The Siege" and "The Color Purple"), the film focuses on the disparities between the two men and how their views of themselves as well as the world in which they live drives them. For more than half a century, there's been conjecture about what lead a poor and disgruntled artist into becoming the Chancellor of Germany. While Meyjes' script touches upon various theories, it never takes a steadfast stand on any particular answer, but that thankfully doesn't diffuse the issue.

Not surprisingly, while the film might be about Max and his lifestyle that includes having a wife and mistress - played by Molly Parker ("Waking the Dead," "Sunshine") and Leelee Sobieski ("The Glass House," "Joy Ride") in parts that either weren't fleshed out enough or ended up mostly on the cutting room floor - the most intriguing character is obviously none other than Hitler.

Noah Taylor ("Vanilla Sky," "Shine") does a brilliant job rendering the character both from a physical and psychological standpoint. While the actor smartly avoids making him sympathetic, he certainly portrays him as a fascinating if obviously troubled and tormented soul.

Meyjes creates some insightful and sharply written scenes and dialogue between Taylor and Cusack's characters, while other moments involve Hitler falling, in part, under the lucrative spell of a German officer - played by Ulrich Thomsen ("The Weight of Water," "Mostly Martha") - who sees promise in Hitler's propagandistic tendencies. I'm sure varying degrees of artistic license were taken with that relationship and other historical matter, but the overall effort is still a fascinating "what if" sort of tale.

The ultimate outcome of the story is a given as Meyjes does not apply any sort of revisionist tone to what would be. Nevertheless, the film manages to be a fascinating and generally well-made look at two disparate men during a period of pending change in post WWI Germany. With solid performances from the leads, sharp writing and character observation, and an intriguing premise, the thought-provoking "Max" is worth checking out. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 7, 2002 / Posted February 7, 2003

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