History is riddled with paradoxes, mysteries that time and knowledge have been unable to lock. What if Saddam Hussein were allowed to follow his childhood dream of being a transsexual harem lap dancer named Coco?

“Max,” the directorial debut of writer Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple), examines the relationship between a pre-World War II Adolph Hitler and a Jewish gallery owner named Max Rothman, and how, with a little more encouragement and better timing, Hitler’s reign of terror might have been averted.

Part fiction, part fact, part wishful thinking, “Max” puts up a good fight, but in the end the film goes down like Mr. T at the end of “Rocky III.” Meyjes attempts to paint a human face on a monster, and the result is a character study that never manages to support the filmmaker’s argument that if Hitler had received as much support for his artistic endeavors as his political inclinations, one of the darkest periods in modern history would never have transpired.

It’s a risky defense, one that Meyjes doesn’t seem capable of making. There is not enough here to prop up such an argument, only occasional flashes of what could have been. Despite sturdy performances and assured direction, “Max” lacks conviction. I would like to see this story told as a miniseries, which would allow Meyjes to dig deeper, expose more, and create characters who are more than just mouthpieces.

Adolph Hitler’s rise to power remains an enigma, and “Max” attempts to expose the events that led to his unlikely ascension to Chancellor of the Third Reich. We learn more about one-armed gallery owner Rothman (John Cusack) than we do about Hitler, even as the script makes a valiant attempt to balance the scales.

“Max” takes place in Munich, 1918, and the effects of World War I are still being felt by the citizens, both German and Jewish. Even as a current of anti-Semitism runs through the city, both races manage to coexist with a minimal amount of divisiveness. Rothman and Hitler are examples of the great divide, the haves and have-nots.

Whereas Rothman returned from the war to a wealthy family and a comfortable existence, Hitler was not as fortunate. Poor and destitute before the war, Hitler finds more of the same upon his return, forced to live in a dilapidated barrack and stand in line for hot soup and bread. His only escape is his art, which he presents to Rothman with the hope of gaining notoriety.

Rothman sees something in Hitler’s art, but encourages him to dig deeper to discover his true artistic voice. Noah Taylor, so brilliant in “Shine,” plays Hitler as a young man so desperate for recognition that when he’s given a choice between being a great artist or a great leader, he chooses the latter because it comes with immediate gratification. Hitler discovers his natural ability to hypnotize a crowd with his rhetoric, and Taylor executes these moments with absolute confidence.

The film’s most alarming moment comes when Hitler reveals his latest sketches to Rothman, a utopian society that transforms a struggling Germany into a thriving city. Rothman is intrigued by Hitler’s details, right down to the clothes and insignias, but we know that these illustrations are actually his prophecy for the Third Reich.

Cusack is good as Rothman, a man who enjoys the privileges of money and talent, but has none of his own. His career as a serious artist was lost along with his right arm in the war, and the money he uses to operate his gallery and maintain his more-than-comfortable home, are the byproducts of a marriage to the daughter (Molly Parker) of a doctor. That doesn’t stop him from engaging in an affair with a beautiful German mistress (Leelee Sobieski).

The women in “Max” play vital links to Max and Hitler’s state of mind. Nina (Parker) allows Max his dalliances, probably out of guilt, but mostly out of love. She sees beyond his poised exterior, the hurt and frustration of being a kept man forced to exploit the talent of others rather than himself. Liselore Von Peltz (Sobieski) isn’t in love with Max, but with the idea of being with a man who can’t be hers.

Hitler sees this behavior as decadent, yet when Max tries to set Hitler up a woman, it becomes clear that the future Fuhrer is incapable of personal emotional connection. It’s only when he’s standing in front of a hall of Germans, spouting anti-Semitic propaganda, that he discovers his real passion.

“Max” is bereft of complexity, yet I appreciated the director’s insular style that keeps most of the action and events contained to just a few sets. The small glimpses we get of Munich create the perfect atmosphere for the characters to exist. I just wish the script and characters were as perfect.


Filmmaker paints speculative Hitler drama


John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Molly Parker, Ulrich Thomsen. Directed by Menno Meyjes. Rated R. 107 Minutes.


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