Just as writer-director Menno Meyjes' Max was premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, Overlook Press was shipping to bookstores Frederic Spotts' Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. The film and the book say essentially the same thing: Adolf Hitler was a reluctant dictator, a potentially insignificant man who wanted only to spend his life painting but turned to politics when he discovered wanting to be an artist and being an artist were not quite the same thing. "I became a politician against my will," Hitler often said. "If someone else had been found, I would have never gone into politics. I would have become an artist or a philosopher." In the end, of course, his was the fine art of annihilation; he would use Europe as his canvas and the blood of millions as his paint to built a monument not to himself, he insisted, but all of Germany. "Repeatedly, throughout his career," Spotts writes, "Hitler complained about having to sacrifice his artistic interests to the burdens of governing." Somehow, he managed.
In Max, the would-be "Bohemian aesthete" of which Spotts writes is portrayed by Noah Taylor, best known for roles in such films as Almost Famous and Shine. Taylor plays Hitler as you imagine he might have been in those gray Munich days after the First World War -- as a grimy miscreant, a glowering nobody who is all scowl and a shock of dark hair limply obscuring beady eyes. Meyjes, a directing novice whose screenwriting credits include The Color Purple and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade's story, has fictionalized the historical record. He did his research and filled in the estimable blanks with speculation, theory, distorted fact, and nutty dialogue. It is hard not to giggle at a film in which John Cusack's Max Rothman, a German-Jewish art dealer who encourages Hitler to dig deeper and find an "authentic voice," tells the future Führer "C'mon, Hitler, let me buy you a lemonade."
But well before its release, Max was greeted by anything but the sound of titters. In May, well before it debuted at Toronto in September, the Jewish Defense League demanded that Lions Gate Films, which is distributing Max, put the thing back on the shelf and leave it there. "Not only is the film in bad taste, it is also a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community," said the lobby organization's spokesman, who had only heard of the movie but not seen it, an entirely too-familiar pattern among the so-called enlightened who would denounce art on a rumor. "There is no moral justification for making such a movie," read the JDL Web site. The Anti-Defamation League accused Meyjes of making a film that was "trivializing" a horrific man and downright "offensive." In The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd damned Max and other Holocaust-centric films as glamorizing the "lifestyles of the Reich and Fascist."
About Frederic Spotts' book, nothing was said. By anybody. Hey, it's just a book.
But such reactions to Max were to be expected. The filmmakers would have been disappointed, most likely, had their movie slipped into theaters without the attendant controversy that turns novelties and oddities into box-office sleepers. The making of Max is a story full of similar tales: Meyjes, whose father had been in a prisoner-of-war camp, and producer Andras Hamorai, a Hungarian Jew whose mother and grandmother barely escaped the concentration camps by hiding in a neighbor's home, could find no funding for their film. Meyjes has a deal with Steven Spielberg's production company, and the Schindler's List director loved the script. Still, he told his protégé he couldn't and wouldn't touch Max. It wouldn't be prudent for the head of the Shoah Foundation to humanize Hitler.
Investors agreed to fund the $10 million project, then kept pulling out, even pretending to be other people so they wouldn't have to take meetings or return calls. They didn't want that blood on their hands. Only when Cusack read the script and said he would make no other movies till Max was funded -- a trick he learned from old pal Nick Nolte, who did the same thing when he wanted to make North Dallas Forty -- were they able to attract European money. So, yeah, they expected the shit storm, and then some.
"It's one thing for people to say, 'Yeah, we want films that are smarter, more challenging,'" Cusack says. "Then they look at this and go, 'Oh, we don't want it to be that challenging, to be that smart. Let's just have this one go away. Let's write about Chicago,' you know? 'Or Training Day. Okay, we can figure that one out.' I'm not dissing those movies, but this movie's not just about Hitler. It's also about Max, about the spirit that Hitler tried to kill. It's about the fusion of art and politics. This movie's about the future, that's why it's so fuckin' scary. The very people that bemoan the lack of ideas then attack the film."
At the very beginning of the interview, Cusack already sounds agitated, revved up. Then again, he's been talking about Max for months, doing interview after interview about this film, hammering into writers' heads that this is a Big Picture picture, something that'll last five years, ten years from now. (Unlike, say, America's Sweethearts and Serendipity, which disappeared into the ether like helium balloons.) Some of his words throughout this conversation will ring familiar to anyone who's read more than one newspaper or magazine story on Max. Cusack will not only repeat things he has said to other journalists, but things he said fifteen minutes earlier. He will twice refer to Modris Ekstein's book The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age as "the mind-blowing book" on the subject, and twice ask his interrogator if he has seen the documentary The Architecture of Doom. The cynic will insist he isn't paying attention; the realist will admit he's working hard to sell a labor of love, perhaps to the point of collapse.
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