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'Max'

'Max' imagines a young Adolf Hitler

Friday, January 24, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

Max Rothman, an aspiring Bavarian painter who lost his right arm at Ypres, is one of the walking wounded from World War I. But he's otherwise healthy, wealthy and wise, compared with his fellow artist-veteran -- a dysfunctional little corporal named Hitler.

 
 
'Max'

RATING: R for language and adult themes

STARRING: John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Leelee Sobieski

DIRECTOR: Menno Meyjes

Critic's call:

   
 

In "Max," Hungarian director Menno Meyjes tells the extraordinary tale of a fictional friendship between those two troubled ex-soldiers: One of them, an affluent Jew, is becoming Munich's most successful avant-garde art dealer; the other is becoming something more monstrous than the world has ever known.

"I've seen the future, and believe me -- there's no future in the future," says disillusioned Max, beautifully played by John Cusack.

In his gigantic art warehouse -- a converted train station -- rich customers wander about, glancing at the decadent expressionist and radical Bolshevik canvases. "Why is everything so expensive?" someone asks. "Because otherwise," Max replies, "nobody would buy it."

Max has a beautiful wife (Molly Parker), a soulful mistress (Leelee Sobieski) -- and a dangerous protege in the form of Young Adolf, a Young Frankenstein if ever there was one, in the carefully crafted performance of Noah Taylor. This Hitler (like the real one) has all sorts of good, bourgeois virtues: anti-alcohol, anti-cigarettes, anti-profanity or vulgarity of any kind. These days, he's trying to better himself by taking a course in public speaking. But to what end? To articulate the violently anti-Semitic theory and practice of Aryan superiority:

"We have been stabbed in the back by the Jews and the profiteers," he screams with a mad gleam in his eye, proclaiming, "War is vitality!"

Calmly, in private, he confesses to Max, "All I have in this world is the conviction that I'm a great man -- but I have terrible doubts."

"Paint them!" comes the response.

Writer-director Meyjes' superbly cynical, bitterly ironic script is mitigated by humor. "What's the difference between a Rottweiler and a Jewish mother?" goes one of Max's jokes.

Answer: "Eventually, the Rottweiler lets go."

Likewise penetrating is Max's view on the warmongering "patriotism" of Germans: "Die for the mother-in-law land! War is the instrument by which the unhappy turn the happy into themselves." The film's greatest scene is a cutting-edge morality play in which Max makes that point by stuffing himself into a human sausage grinder.

It is a bit too ponderously philosophical at times, and its tragic conclusion comes without the proper build-up. But it contains deliriously acrophobic cinematography, gorgeous music and a quintessential Central European sensibility. Brilliantly performed by Cusack and Taylor, this thought-provoking "Max" is a flawed but fabulous allegory.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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