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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
from Film Forum,01/16/03

Noah Taylor is best known for his charming lead role in the romantic comedy Flirting, and more recently made memorable marks on Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky. Now he's starring as the most notorious monster of the 20th century. Max dares to delve into the life of Hitler in the days before the Holocaust. Taylor is scarier than any orc in his intense performance. His performance reveals a bitter, wrathful, prejudiced, and explosive young man torn between his desire for an audience and his mediocre talents as an artist.

Hitler's acquaintance, German artist Max Rothman, is played by John Cusack in his finest dramatic work. As Hitler tries to win an exhibit in Rothman's art gallery, Rothman tries to steer Hitler away from the ugly and divisive politics of German anti-Semites. But when he refuses to give Hitler the exposure he wants, Hitler loses his patience. Their friendship heads for disaster, and the world plunges toward a nightmare.

Menno Meyjes's film is an ambitious idea, and it gives Taylor and Cusack opportunities for passionate speeches and energetic debates. But that is about all the film has to offer. The speeches and arguments themselves are simplistic, telling us what we already know. They sound like what non-artists might imagine artists talk about, but to artists they will sound frustratingly shallow and obvious. I kept wondering what director Milos Forman would have done with the material; his interest in how the angst of troubled men was transformed into art and comedy made both Amadeus and Man on the Moon compelling explorations. As it is, Meyjes divides our attentions between the two major players, failing to take us far enough into either character's heart.

The film's narrow focus on the days when Hitler failed bitterly as an artist could have gone deeper into questions of how political agendas and artistic vision conflict. Or we might have had a larger biopic, seeing how Hitler's artistic aspirations nearly became a far less destructive route for his passions had he channeled his energies in that direction.

But the title of the film is Max, and thus it seems that the focus should be on Rothman. Rothman's life clearly offers enough material for a whole film in itself; his acquaintance with Hitler could have been included as just another fascinating episode along the way. Molly Parker's brief but intriguing performance as his neglected wife hints at what might have been a more interesting story. As it is, Max ends up feeling like excerpts from a larger, better film; we get two sketchy portraits of passionate and compromising men.

The limited release of the film has brought it to the attention of only a few religious press critics. Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says, "Max is a valiant effort. Sometimes it is so wordy that it is dull, but often it is brilliant. Unfortunately it tries to do something that should not be done … that is to diminish the nature of evil that caused horrific racial genocide on a mass scale in a so-called developed and civilized country." Baehr also objects to the film's portrayal of Hitler, who is "reduced to a nail-chewing, weak-willed neurotic who stumbles upon the idea of anti-Semitism. Historically, Hitler was very clear about who he was."

Mainstream critics are either mildly impressed or somewhat dissatisfied. Stephen Holden (The New York Times) says, "It is a historical fantasy connecting fact and wild supposition into a provocative work of fiction that poses ticklish questions about art and society." David Poland raves, "The thing that really took me by surprise about this film was how gentle and lovely and emotionally complex this journey was. Cusack is at the top of his game as a man of breeding, taste and real caring. Taylor has his career-best role and hits it out of the park."