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(2002) *** R
106 min. Lions Gate. Director: Frederic Fonteyne. Cast: Alfredo Pea, Jan Hammenecker.

Short of the mock-snuff of exploitation cinema and unsanctioned films about religion, no greater taboo exists today than stories which might dare to humanize Hitler. The furor over the fuhrer attends a planned CBS miniseries about Hitler's early years, as well as Max, a speculative fiction written and directed by Menno Meyjes. To humanize is hardly to sanctify, but Max does dare to entertain the notion that Hitler's path may not have been a highway to hell but a road with a crossroads.

John Cusack plays Max Rothman, a one-armed World War I veteran who holds court in a warehouse gallery, both creating and hawking art. Though Rothman is invented, Meyjes plops him into the thick of the moment in 1918 Munich. In his element, Rothman bandies snooty clientele and cynical artists (like real deals Max Ernst and George Grosz); breaking out of a bustling reception, Rothman seems to confuse the fresh air and the tightly wound young man lurking outside. This young man, too, is a war veteran and an artist, and Rothman sees something in him. The man, of course, is Adolf Hitler--brilliantly played by Noah Taylor--and the story that follows imagines the maddening mentoring which could well have led Hitler through his self-hatred to his ultimate, disturbing self-possession.

Perhaps what has so offended naysayers is Meyjes' droll puckishness. For starters, the film is called Max, though young Adolph is much more than a mere foil for John Cusack's art dealer (a man who says, in a line destined for the cinema history books, "Hitler, come on! I'll buy you a glass of lemonade!"). Still, Meyjes cultivates a thoughtful ambivalence about the film's namesake: if Rothman--as winningly played by Cusack, a quick-witted, empathetic soul--could fail to right Hitler, who could succeed? On the other hand, Meyjes indicts the intelligent man's aloofness to the gathering storm around him--his sense of social justice is as diffuse as Hitler's art...close, but no cigars. Rothman's art exposes realities but lacks the imagination of futurism, even as he joyously embraces Hitler's eventual artistic breakthrough: a fantasia of proto-Nazi design.

Sometimes Max is too clever or too obvious for its own good, too clumsy or too overplayed. The women's roles--Molly Parker as Rothman's wife and Leelee Sobieski as his mistress--turn out to be disingenuous, time-wasting gestures on Meyjes's part. But the interaction of Rothman and Hitler crackles. Though credibly unlikeable in his role, Taylor's Hitler is hardly an incomprehensible monster; instead, he lays bare the churning pain of youth grasping for a direction of meaning, for accomplishment, for admiration. Unfortunately, the instant gratification of the bully pulpit and the promise of power trump the personable encouragement of Rothman's doomed Jewish intellectual. In a time when so many can rise up and insist men like Hitler constitute some kind of supernatural evil, we not only deserve Max's provocation, we need it.

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