Big-screen cautionary tales can be too simple, like a red light flashing for two hours. But Max combines a warning about intellectual hubris and the rise of Nazism with a kicky Rod Serling-like rewrite of history. It asks: What if Adolf Hitler had found himself torn between leading the nascent National Socialist Party or becoming a star recruit in modernism's conquest of the art world? The result is suitably upsetting and intriguing, despite a simultaneously tacky and too-neat climax.
Taking off from the facts that Hitler was an aspiring artist and that several Jewish art dealers helped him sell his work, writer-director Menno Meyjes creates an inventive impresario named Max Rothman (John Cusack), who lost his arm fighting for the Kaiser's Germany. In the volatile atmosphere of 1918 Munich, Max develops an odd, wavering connection with Corporal Hitler (Noah Taylor). Not only did they both survive the perilous Third Battle of Ypres, but Max feels that he's had all the advantages young Adolf has not, including a beautiful ballerina wife (Molly Parker), two loving kids, a warm haute-bourgois extended family and a bohemian mistress (Leelee Sobieski).
As a rebel against artistic and middle-class tradition, Max also feels a bond with Adolf as an outsider, although the budding demagogue combines intellectual ambition with a puritanical streak as wide as the Danube.
Hitler scorns the "emotional anti-Semitism" of his barracks-mates. His own anti-Semitism will be pseudo-scientific. In the movie's key line, Max says that Hitler has become obsessed with blood - and he hopes the obsession is a metaphor. Of course, it's not.
Max becomes the tragicomedy of a Jewish intellectual with an overdeveloped sense of cultural possibilities. Even when Hitler lays out his pop-Wagnerian vision of an intricately stratified new Reich, Max sees the imagination and energy behind it not as a source of catastrophe for Germany but as a source of salvation for his friend, opening up a brave new vein of comic-book art.
Cusack is brilliant as Max, embodying an eccentric, mordant sort of hopefulness with a sneaky satirical attack. Max's foray into performance art prefigures the dehumanization of the concentration camps (Hitler is part of the audience) and helps give the film the texture of a sophisticated horror flick. So does Cusack's strobe light of a performance, which is alternately coruscating and opaque. And, in a daring turn, Taylor, who played the adolescent David Helfgott in Shine, brings Hitler the curdled, woebegone cuteness of an abandoned mutt turning rabid.
Only at the end does Meyjes' manipulation of the atmosphere and plot feel fatally glib. But it never feels precious. Because he can detect the desperation and even silliness beneath Hitler's anti-Semitism, Max doesn't take Adolf's threats seriously. Even when Meyjes' storytelling turns facile, it has an underlying intelligence.
Just because your enemy is human, Max tells us, it doesn't mean his messages can't kill you.
Starring John Cusack and Noah Taylor
Directed by Menno Meyjes
Released by Lions Gate
Time 108 minutes
Sun Score ***