Max: What if Hitler Was a Successful Artist

Portrait of a Monster as a Young Man

It's so rare these days to see a Hollywood movie that's politically charged that, when Max premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, most critics, even those who didn't like it, cheered the fact that such a film was made in the first place.

Marking the directorial debut of Meno Meyjes, best-known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay of The Color Purple (the Alice Walker novel, directed by Spielberg), Max is the kind of film that arouses strong emotions, both pros and cons. Ambitious and daring, the narrative centers on a peculiar friendship between two unlikely men: Max Rothman and Adolph Hitler in 1918, at the end of World War One.

Meyjes claims that he was inspired by a quote from Hitler's noted architect, Albert Speer, who wrote; “If you want to understand Hitler, you have to understand he was an artist first.” Says Meyjes: “The reality is that if you showed somebody the Hitler of 1918, and said in 15 years this man would become the Chancellor of Germany and in 20 years he would set the world on fire, no one would have believe you.”

According to the movie, at that time, Hitler the nerd and the outsider who could not fit into any milieu, might have gone in any number of ways. Max takes the view that the root of Hitler's evil was his disappointment in his inability to express himself. For Meyjes, “Hitler makes a decision to focus his energy on anti-Semitic speeches, and knowing that he could have chosen a different path makes it far more powerful and meaningful. In the end, the roots of Fascism are always the same: fear, rage, envy, and frustration.”

Max is certainly not the first Hollywood movie about Hitler, though most previous efforts have been political satires, such as Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), or comic spoofs like The Producers, first done by Mel Brooks as a movie, and now a huge Broadway hit musical. There's also the delightful screwball comedy, To Be Or Not To Be (1942), with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as Polish actors disguising themselves as Nazis in order to strike a blow against the Third Reich. But it's one thing to poke fun at Hitler, quite another to present him seriously, as a humanized and legit dramatic persona.

Max is unabashedly a movie about ideas–the collision of art and politics–and their fatal consequences. It depicts a world reeling from the War, a time of engaging in debates about the future, dreaming of a better world, imagining a drastic change for a defeated country. It's a time when the lines between art, politics, and personal beliefs are blurred beyond reckoning.
Rooted in some historical facts, the story is based on an intriguing speculation: What if Hitler had been admitted to Vienna's prestigious art academy, a school that rejected him not once but twice. Would he have still become the monster who embarked on a mass genocide and the Final Solution

Meyjes concedes that he wanted to “humanize Hitler as a monster, based on his belief that his speculation would help illuminate him as a deeply disturbed character.”

Actor John Cusack, who plays Max Rothman and is also one of the film's producers, sides with the director: “If you feel, 'How dare we make Hitler a human being I'd say, 'How dare we not'” He explains: “It would be nice but naive to think that our monsters came from a pink cloud and disappeared into a fiery dust.” But to the 36 year-old-actor, known for playing sincere and sly offbeat characters (Bullets Over Broadway, Being John Malkovich) “Hitler was real and it's not responsible to portray history and complicated ideas in a simple black-and-white perspective.”

Still perplexed that his movie got made, Meyjes credits his leading man, who appeared in the picture for a small fraction of his usual fee. In fact, when the funding collapsed, Cusack told his agents that he would not commit to another project until Max is fully financed. Lion's Gate, an independent company, is courageously distributing the film in the United States. “Most of our distributors,” recalled the director, “have been talked out of suicide attempts.”

The movie's central theme is grounded in Meyjes' own passion for art. When he left his native Holland in the 1970s, his parents (who are Protestants) expected him to enlist in the Dutch Foreign Service. Instead, the youngster went to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he mastered the English language by memorizing and copying Hemingway stories. He fondly recalls his father's advice–“artists are people you lunch with, but you don't become one”–before severing off his financial support.

What disturbs some critics about Max is that his humanized portrait as an aspiring artist might encourage viewers to see him as an innocent man, a victim whose later hideous sins are somehow understandable in terms of an anguished past. But to Meyjes, to perceive Hitler as a failed artist is no more of a stretch than blaming Hitler's anti-Semitism on his syphilis (contracted from a Jewish prostitute). Both are tentative explanations at best.

Meyjes roots his idea in the fact that Hitler often defined himself as an artist, “in both the deliberately artistic design of his Nuremberg rallies and the totalitarian architectural visions developed in collaboration with Speer.
As Ron Rosenbaum notes in Explaining Hitler, even writer Thomas Mann held that “the heart of Hitler's appeal to the German people was his presentation of himself as a mythmaking artist rather than as a politician.”

Both men in Max are under the spell of modern art–albeit in a radically different way. When Max first meets Hitler, he see him as an embittered loser, all too similar to other angry artists he had met. Despite having lost an arm in the war, which effectively wrecked his own ambitions, Max remains intoxicated by the possibilities and potential of modern art.” “I was fascinated by Max's casual compassion–he's a classic liberal. he knows Hitler is dangerous, but still believes that if Hitler had his advantages, he wouldn't be so bitter and angry.

Meyjes holds that “Max bothers those people who think of art as an exalted profession. For them the notion that Hitler could ever be an artist gives him too much credit.” But in my movie, I also show him to be “full of emotional cowardice, envy, and relentless self-pity. You may see these vices as small sins, but it's always the small sins that add up.”

In the film, Max is the true innocent. He keeps trying to interpret what Hitler says through the context of art, seeing him as a mad futurist. But how can you blame him “Who in 1918 would look at a guy who's sleeping in doorways and ever believe that someday he's going to set the world on fire”

Max shows more of the ugly young Fuhrer than viewers will be comfortable watching, but the film is meant to make audiences feel uncomfortable. For Max, a German-Jewish soldier returning from the Great War, the present has turned out radically different from what he had imagined. Once a promising artist, he lost his right hand, and with it, his ability to paint. Yet the future draws Max as a magnet, fueled by dynamic restlessness, typified by the birth of modernism. He decides to open up an art gallery, which soon become highly acclaimed. Once a happily married man, with an ideal wife and picturesque family, Max is now torn by uncertainty and infatuation with a young mistress.

At a party for a new show, he meets another futurist and aspiring painter, Adolph Hitler). Like Max, Hitler is a fellow war veteran. Unlike Max, he has no family, no home, and no friends. Max likes Hitler. they're kindred spirits. Both are scarred by the horrible war. Soon Hitler decides to transfer his dubious creative talents to politics, where at last he finds the outlet for his beliefs, setting in motion the worst catastrophe of the twentieth century.

Max is a fictional character, though his roots lie firmly in history. Meyjes based his fictional creation on an amalgam of historical figures, including leading avant-garde artists who tried to convey the madness of the age. For Meyjes, “Max is the representative of a profoundly idealistic and humanistic European-Jewish tradition that reached its apogee before the Holocaust.”

Meyjes's most audacious act was to conceive Hitler as something rarely seen in cinema: a human being devoid of any clichs. In Max, Hitler is an anonymous man, “just another ragged veteran on the street, just another wannabe artist, who nobody viewed as important until he began to put a spin of political intolerance on everything he did.

Meyjes knew he was taking a big gamble in turning the iconic Hitler of myth into flesh-and-blood, but he felt strongly that such a portrait would starkly reveal the extreme profanity and horrifying consequences of Hitler's choices. Meyjes explains: “What Hitler did was so awful that we all desire an extreme grandeur to surround him. We want to believe he was a force born in a cloud of sulfur that disappeared in a puff of gasoline and now, thank God, we're rid of that forever. But that's not true. Hitler was a human being, and it is the fact that he made a choice to become a monster than is essential to understanding him.”

Meyjes also believes that his story is relevant to today's murky world politics. “There are Hitlers of the future lurking, and if you want to comprehend what makes evil tick, you have to begin with ordinary human emotions, with his the hardest for moviegoers to accept.” Indeed, despite rigorous research, Meyjes wanted Max Rothman to exist in “a state of timelessness–to look, sound and feel as if he could exist just as easily in the 21st century, as if his idealism and energy could be part of today's culture.”

The question of where Hitler's painting career fits into the overall pattern of his life has recently come to the fore. Hitler was serious about becoming a real artist, though he wound never prove to have the talent. He had developed a particular passion for Wagner's music as a boy and dreamed that he too would one day create classic works of art. When he was 18, Hitler applied to the Vienna Art Academy, where he was turned down. Nevertheless, he continued to paint and sketch before he made his political debut in September 1919, first in Vienna, then in Munich.

Last year, an exhibit of Hitler's paintings entitled “Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics and Hitler's Early Years in Vienna, 1906-1913,” was shown at the Williams College Museum of Art, drawing both controversy and acclaim for the curator's courage and the show's relevance to contemporary discussion on the intersection of art and politics.

Meyjes delved into intensive research to create Max Rothman, Hitler, and the modern art world in which they dwell. He cites Modris Ekstein's Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of Modern Age, a controversial history of how WWI influenced the avant-garde, as well as Robert Hughes' Shock of the New, about the rise of modernism. Meyjes also found himself pouring through various biographies of Hitler, including Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler and Ian Kershaw's Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris, which examines Hitler's transition from a shiftless nobody living on the streets to an all-powerful dictator. Above all, “a major beacon” the director read and reread was Hannah Arendt, referring to the philosopher who wrote about the “banality of evil,” and the notion that only through “rational thinking, humankind can abstain from evil.