John Cusack in Max

Max film review | TIFF 2002

by W. Andrew Powell

In a Germany without accents, with the air of a city that could just as easily be 50 years ago or yesterday, Max follows the life of Max Rothman (played by John Cusack), a former soldier who came back from WWI without one of his arms and as an artist with only one hand, Max finds himself unable to paint, which leads him to start selling art in a local warehouse. On the evening that the film opens, Max meets an inspired young artist named Adolf Hitler who approaches Max with the hope that he’ll consider showing his art in the gallery. Nothing is that simple though, and even as we see Hitler walking away, there is an urgency and terror that bleeds into every conversation from then on as we begin to see what Hitler’s youth might have been like.

Dealing with a subject this taboo and difficult is brave, but the key is all about balance… weighing out what you can tell in the story without breaking through into anything that would betray the audiences feelings. Max does balance all of the issues of looking into a fictional account of someone as terrible as Hitler, but many will still walk away feeling as if this is the kind of film that humanizes a monster. In my mind, Max does humanize Hitler, but not in a way that you could feel any sort of compassion for the man. It just makes you realize that while Hitler was a terrible individual who terrorized the world, he wasn’t the devil – he was an awful human that had a terrible vision of what life was all about. It also puts a face to at least one person who might have suffered.

Noah Taylor as a young Hitler is frighteningly pervasive in every aspect of his performance. He captures a certain idea of what the man could have been like and runs with it. Cusack however is the main attraction for the film. Taylor certainly does an amazing job, but Cusack has a lot more to work with and handles a much more subtle edge of the film’s plot that another actor might have overlooked.

In terms of the supporting cast, I have to admit that while I loved Leelee Sobieski as Max’s lover Liselore Von Peltz, and Molly Parker as Max’s wife Nina, I didn’t find them particularly useful to the story as a whole. In a way, they actually detract from where everything else is leading, even though they do lend substantial flesh to Max’s life. Aside from a few other minor flaws, I would actually have to say that’s one of my few complaints against the film.

Max is a play of darkness and light though, and it’s punctuated early on by a distinct use of broad silence that sometimes overrides anything the characters could say. This makes some scenes that could otherwise be a waste into powerful moments that draw you further into the story and characters. Combine that with the powerful cinematography of Lajos Koltai, who has a keen eye for angles and the play of light on darkness, and you’ve got one of the more compelling dramas of the last year. (I should also add that I think Max has one of the most powerful scenes that I’ve ever witnessed. It’s hard to describe without giving a lot of the ending away, but I think almost anyone will find it hard not to feel brutalized after watching the play of events in the last 10 minutes of the film.)

So, while Max doesn’t quite feel fully realised to me, mainly for the lack of substance to the supporting cast, this is a film that shouldn’t be missed. It takes two sides of the same coin, Max who is an artistic genius who can’t work his art any more, and Hitler, a man who has the concept of art in his blood, but takes it and shapes it into something much darker and angry. As we watch these two sides struggle throughout the film, it’s obvious that while the story revolves around the future of someone named Hitler, it’s much more importantly about someone named Max… someone who happens to be one of the people who ends up suffering because of Hitler’s fanatic idealism.

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