Some viewers have worried that Menno Meyjes’ Max “humanizes” Adolf Hitler. But the film is less concerned with making him sympathetic, or even very specific, than it is in using him to illustrate a series of ideas. This interest in ideas makes Max rather emotionally flat, an exercise in which the pleasures are more ideological than dramatic. But this focus also allows the film’s intriguing difference from more usual WWII narratives, its daring to probe what appear to be unassailable, un-probable historical events.
Max‘s Adolf (played by Noah Taylor, without the mustache but with eyes obscured by the familiar shock of hair) is an aspiring, 30-year-old painter in Munich, 1918. A veteran of the First World War, he’s now too poor to live on his own (much like the nation for which he fought), and so, still resides the local Army barracks, doing laundry and odd jobs to get by. The future Führer is here fretful and melancholy. His search for moral and social order, a structure he might believe in, leads him into a dismal void: he takes up with the swelling anti-Semitic fervor of his fellow soldiers, not, he claims, because he hates the Jews, but because he “admires” them. That is, Adolf’s rationale for his Final Solution begins with his belief that “purity of blood,” as he sees it practiced by Jews who regularly intermarry. He comes to believe that Aryans must develop a similar rigor with regard to “race” and collective identity.
Before this thunderbolt comes to him, however, Adolf flails about, looking for a way to express himself. And so, as Max opens, he is contemplating whether to devote himself to his painting or to politics. As it tracks his struggle, however, the movie reveals that this choice is illusory. Ironically, perhaps, it is Adolf, so unhappy, so desperate for approval and a sense of purpose, who finds the alarmingly precise language for this insight: “Politics is the new art.”
At first glance, the Adolf Hitler in Max hardly seems a rhetorical genius, or even much of a thinker. Wearing his tattered military trench coat, he arrives at an art gallery located in an old ironworks (such repurposing and intersecting of industry and art is a repeated theme in the film). The owner, a fictional German Jewish dealer named Max Rothman (John Cusack), happens also to be a veteran; in fact, he’s lost an arm to his four years in service, and so bears his own umbrage against the state that is signing away its people’s socio-economic future to the “peace.” Max recognizes Adolf’s uniform and the portfolio he carries, and offers to see his work.
Adolf is initially put off when he hears that Max is fond of “modern” work: his gallery is at that moment showing German Expressionist George Grosz (Kevin McKidd), another veteran whose work reveals personal anguish and political resistance in alarming, angry images. Hitler’s work is more mundane, vaguely realistic sketches of soldiers in trenches and portraits of dogs. He hews to this aesthetic, seeing less figurative work as incomprehensible “trash.” But Max, captivated by Hitler’s sad story of poverty and loss, decides to encourage his new acquaintance.
Urging Adolf to “go deep,” to paint the battlefield as it “felt,” rather than as it happened, Max plainly understands the difficulty of his own project. He brusquely tells Adolf that he’s “hard to like,” particularly when he lets loose a bit of anti-Semitic invective. In part, Max is drawn to Adolf out of his own sense of guilt, for coming home to a fine home and intact family, including a lovely wife (Molly Parker), two children, and attentive in-laws. He also “believes” in Adolf in an effort to rekindle his fading enthusiasm for art as politics.
Max is grappling with his own frustrations; he too was a painter before he lost his arm. Aside from his perverse interest in Adolf, he takes up drink and a mistress, a painter named Liselore (Leelee Sobieski). Her sparse, unheated apartment exemplifies her dedication, and makes Max’s accumulated clutter look increasingly oppressive. At her place, they cling to one another in her bed for warmth; at his home, miniature busts and hand-painted teacups fill all the shelves, the camera looking through these pieces in order to peer down on Max and his gathered family.
Repeatedly, the camera pans over Grosz’s vivid canvases, then, in a next scene, picks up the details of these little domestic tchotchkes — the visual contrast hints at Max’s increasing confusion, the ground for his investment in Adolf, also churning with contradictions, and even more visibly. Where Max has learned to repress his anger, or twist it up with cynicism, the young corporal is all raw surface. Taylor plays him with ferrety frowns and twitchy fingers. Given the context, the fate of this artist as a young psychotic, the performance seems apt, but its build-up to a ghastly anti-Semitic diatribe before a throng of ready-to-rouse Germans is hardly subtle.
Such stirring oratory is, of course, Adolf’s other calling, the one that will lure him away from painting. And in the film’s overly schematic structure, this other calling is embodied by a captain at Hitler’s barracks, Mayr (Ulrich Thomsen). Just as Max urges his potential protégé to “go deep,” Mayr advocates his seemingly intuitive understanding of surface, of “propaganda.” Recognizing in the seething young man a voluble public speaker, he arranges for local speeches, warm-ups for the “movement” Mayr hasn’t quite begun to imagine. And in fact, that imagining will be Adolf’s; when he tells Max he’s planning on writing a book, you know what it will be named.
And yet again, the film suggests that the course of history is not completely set: at first, Adolf demurs from public speaking, telling Mayr that he wants to pursue his art. His captain scoffs. “That is your canvas,” he whispers in Adolf’s ear, looking out on a crowd of sullen faces. Excited by the creative process, Hitler goes to work.
Meyjes’ Hitler represents a set of ongoing tensions, between art and politics, self-expression and performance, ambition and nostalgia. Max sees that his new sketches, for military uniforms, assemblies, and architectural structure, are looking backward more than forward, seeking order premised on “traditional” values. Max also sees that the drawings exhibit a certain genius for popular form. The look is grandly, crazily aggressive, it’s “future kitsch,” exults Max, not even conceiving that the vision might be realized, much less directed at him and his family.
Max’s own sense of purpose lies in his ability to give hope and public display, as well as a living, to young artists. At first, he ridicules Adolf’s claims to connections between art and politics: “Would you rather teach them a new way to see, or how to pay their taxes?” he asks. But Max misses this crucial point, that seeing and paying taxes are equally functions of desire and projection.
Today, this interlocking system seems to run on automatic: speeches are devised for maximum televisual impact, campaigns for office come in 60-second commercial installments, sound-bitten platforms, perfectly coiffed candidates, even wars, are products to be sold to a repeatedly polled public. That kitschy vision — put to various purposes — is now fully realized.