Directed by Menno Meyjes
Starring John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Molly Parker, Ulrich Thomsen
Length 108 minutes
Max Rothman, a one-armed, Jewish art dealer in 1918 Germany, meets a disheveled, disgruntled, desperate artist named Adolf Hitler. Max lost his right arm in WWI and returned to immediately resume his art appreciation, promotion, and sale. Passionate, insightful, opinionated, and kind, Max is a wellspring of culture in a country sapped of its identity, pride, and, seemingly, its future.
An obscure, homeless, failing artist, Adolf Hitler, contacts Max and requests his aid in finding exposure for his work. Max urges the narrow-minded man to "go deeper" with his creativity, to loosen his drab realism and mine his more "voluptuous" energy. The film follows the day-to-day life and interaction of these two polarized characters.
Hitler falls into the budding anti-semitic crowd who eventually form the National Socialists, while Max advises him to avoid such foolishness and pursue his art.
The film's trailer slogan is officially "Art, Politics, Power", but I say it should be: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN, as it is repeated a few times in the film. Young Hitler has a choice before him: choose art and creation or bitter politics and destruction.
At the reopening of his art gallery (set in an old ironwork), Max tells his mistress that he needs to see her again and she remarks, "Where's the future in it?" Max says, "I've seen the future...There's no future in the future."
Max is full of such unwitting, ominous statements. Another example: Max's friend is rudely received by Hitler and whispers to Max:
"What's his name?"
"Never heard of him."
Chilling, indeed, yet the previous quote is much more thematic and important: "There is no future in the future." Along with "WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN", this is a telling, accurate statement in regard to the advent of Nazism and Germany's subsequent brainwashing.
Cusack masterfully plays Max, the ever-curious, ever-passionate artist who must accept his own lack of painting ability due to his missing right arm. Max is progressive and modern, yet he is an anachronism in disgruntled, depressed Germany. The market is overriding the art. The War Guilt Clause in the Treaty of Versailles has castrated the military men and offended the citizenry, including German Jews. Max is beyond politics, disillusioned by the War, eager to seek and foster and celebrate "newness" instead of regret and vengeance.
Noah Taylor, on the other hand, fills Hitler's role frighteningly plausibly. Weary, pining for the War's glory, unsung and unsuccessful, young Hitler (30 years) considers himself progressive and modern, as well. He seeks a "cultural revolution" in art. He dreams of escaping Israel's "God of guilt", gradually forming his regard for the Jews. But he also expresses belief in a powerful State: ""I don't believe in anti-Semitism," he says to fellow barracks residents, "The Semitic question is far too important to be left to the individual. It ought to be in the domain of the government, like public health or sewage." These opinions are appreciated and exploited by military proponents of National Socialism, seeing in Hitler a gift for oratory and hysterical simplification of seminal ideas that later sent European Jewry to the death camps.
As Hitler fumbles for help from Max, Max reiterates his advice for Hitler to direct his energy fully into his art, to find his own "authentic voice". Hitler's current work contains no verve, no deepness. Hitler must dig deeper. And after that, according to Max, "deeper still!" Though Hitler needs Max's expertise and networking, the two are always at odds, disciples of different Ways. Hitler's staunch intolerance for caffeine, meat, cigarettes, hanky-panky, and alcohol, for example are in constant tension with Max's excessive smoking, preference for strong coffee, taste in art, and erotic infidelity. Max is always flipping open his lighter and lighting another cigarette, blowing smoke, while Hitler winces and scowls. The smoke is a visible, wordless affront, a free and invasive essence that Max boldly displays and shares, making no apologies. (Max's constant smoking is also a flouting of the so-called survival basis of all that rot about blood purity and such.)
I was perturbed by Max's unfaithfulness to his beautiful wife, but the film is depicting a man in love with love and sensation and good feelings. Max Rothman is very much like Oskar Schindler, as depicted in Schindler's List: suave, cultured, cool, attractive, and prone to straying from monogamy. He has money to spend, friends, variable interests, optimism, while Hitler has nothing. Max has the capacity for indulgence, which spills into even infidelity. Hitler, in his shabby state, cannot even attract one girl. Again and again Max contrasts the men's stations: Max's refined home and family opposed to Hitler's street tramping and makeshift art studio in a filthy barn.
Many clever allusions and elements throughout the film come to mind as useful and illustrative. The fact that Max is missing his right arm and sustains his left. Max's assessment of Hitler as a Futurist. Hitler's recurring resistance to politics and even anti-Semitic oratory (he starts his speeches mainly bitching about the Treaty, the privileged rich, and being "stabbed in the back"). Max solemnly regretting the loss of his arm while attempting to draw a perfect circle with his remaining limb while Hitler attacks his canvas and stabs it repeatedly with his brush until collapsing to the floor. Hitler, disgusted at seeing birds in cages, saying, "Inhuman." He also calls some idiots "guttersnipes", using the same insult Churchill used for him in reality. An early anti-Semitic marionette show depicting the "blood poisoning" of the Aryan by the "swarthy" Jew. The military exploiters' dream of a renewed army: "war is vitality". And a sign held up for an audience to ponder after Max and friends conclude an anti-war performance (in which a fake arm holding a paintbrush is blown off Max) reading WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN.
What might have been. Indeed. Though the film takes many fictional liberties to tell the tale, its premise is cogent. If a multitude of circumstance had been otherwise, if Max's encouragement had steered young Hitler successfully toward art excellence, if Max had not lost his arm, if, if, if, might, might, might.
Hitler tells Max that he has found his "authentic voice". "Go deeper, you said. Well, I went deep. I am the new artist, practicing the new art." That art is propaganda, rage, and hatred. "Politics is the new art," Hitler smugly boasts.
Near the film's end, Meyjes alternates focus between a searing, hateful speech to a packed auditorium and a whispery Jewish Blessings of Peace. While Hitler leads the room in an outraged chant of "Blood Jew", Max admires his father as they quietly speak their prayers.
We all know what the real Hitler chose. Max plays with truth-based fictions perhaps to make another attempt at understanding what might have contributed to the man's descent into brutality. It also---thankfully---presents Hitler as a human being with human pain and resentment and dreams. History has molded Hitler into a cartoon demon, so to speak, missing the complexity of such a development. There are glimmers of niceness about the portrayed Adolf, but they are lost as he staggers into his destiny---for what at first? Want of money and support by the military? Anger at personal failure? An intensified scapegoating against Jews? Disappointment at impeded art even?
Also, I wonder why Germany later accepted the Nazis. Can things get so bad and hopeless that normal folks can be lulled into such a regime? Certainly. Then and now and from now on. If Hitler hadn't been available, another useful figurehead would have been coached. I harken to an anecdote mentioned at a meal with Max's family. He tells of a woman who deliberately swallowed a tapeworm so she could lose weight. This, of course, repulses his father. But it struck me as something potentially symbolic. Might a people knowingly (to a certain degree) swallow a dangerous thing because that thing seems worth the risk to change a current affliction or depressing state?
Since I must conceal the film's conclusion so as not to spoil it for folks who have yet to watch, I'll close with a final example of Hitler unfortunately missing Max's insightful instruction:
Max says, "We all shit the same, scream the same, and die the same."
Adolf scowls and replies, "There's no need for vulgarity, Rothman."
review by D. Herrle 9/2003
same review at Zinos
© 2003 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved