Menno Meyjes's debut film Max is an intriguing, presumptuous and ultimately doomed attempt to separate a man from his myth. Borges once wrote: "Fame is a form - perhaps the worst form - of incomprehension," and no famous figure of the 20th century has more tantalisingly resisted our comprehension than Adolf Hitler. Far easier to describe the man than to explain him. As Ian Kershaw wrote in Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis: "To call Hitler evil may well be both true and morally satisfying. But it explains nothing. And unanimity in condemnation is even potentially an outright barrier to understanding and explanation."
What Meyjes has attempted is an imaginative recreation of Hitler as a young man, a dynamo of undirected fury but not yet the dark star of German anti-Semitism he would become. This is by no means the first time his years of early obscurity have been fictionalised. Beryl Bainbridge's 1978 comic novel Young Adolf posits the idea that Hitler, attempting to evade military service, flees Germany in 1913 and seeks refuge with his half-brother Alois in Liverpool, where he gets a job as messenger boy at the Adelphi Hotel. Bainbridge portrays the future dictator as an absurd and somewhat hysterical failure who, in the book's ironic last words, will "never amount to anything".
The Hitler of Max is of a piece with this pathetic creature. Set in Munich after the Great War, when Germany was impoverished and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, it focuses on Hitler (Noah Taylor) as a near-destitute war veteran without friends, family or means of support. His coat hanging off him like a scarecrow, he visits soup kitchens and scowls at passers-by. The road to his destiny forks between his long-cherished ambition to be an artist and his inchoate political consciousness. The film proposes two men beckoning him down either path: one is a soldier, Captain Mayr (Ulrich Thomsen), who discerns in Hitler the fanatical rabble-rouser and mouthpiece of a new German order; the other is a Jewish art dealer, Max Rothman (John Cusack), another war veteran, who encourages him to express his rage on the canvas.
If that makes the picture sound rather schematic, it plays more engrossingly than its structure would suggest. As Max, John Cusack conveys an infectious ebullience that has survived even the loss of his right arm at Ypres; he makes smoking a cigarette seem both an act of resignation and a stylish gesture of integrity. His air of amused tolerance whenever Hitler is around seems born of pity as much as affection. Who could help being moved by a man this friendless? When Max takes him out for a night on the town with a couple of women, Hitler has no better idea of how to charm them than a tongue-tied adolescent would - he knows only two modes, brooding discontent or a sudden violence of opinion, both of which preclude him from anything resembling a conversation.
Inevitably, one looks to Noah Taylor's performance for signs of the Hitler to come, of the man who would mesmerise a nation and drag it into the abyss. Most of the time Meyjes wisely keeps Taylor on a leash - only once does the fledgling demagogue foam at the mouth, during a beer-hall rant - allowing him to create by degrees a believably damaged individual. Physically he seems right: scrawny, unprepossessing, arms folded tensely across his chest, eyes on fire with indignation. The hair hangs in a greasy side-parting, and the faintest wisp of a moustache clings to his lip.
Is it any wonder that his allure remains a mystery? Even his loyal champion, Mayr, admits that Hitler is "a nothing - but maybe this is the age of the nothing". There is, too, a lopsidedness to the portrait. Taylor projects the repressed excitability, exorbitant self-esteem and calculating shrewdness of the politician-in-waiting, but he does little to suggest the artist manqué, aside from expressing disgust at Max's Dadaist floor show. (I'm afraid I was with Hitler on this one.) While movies are generally inarticulate on the matter of artistic inspiration, one feels a thinness of texture in the film's reluctance to show Hitler absorbed in his own art, however paltry it may have been. His tantrum in front of a blank canvas is the purest cop-out.
That the film attempts a psychology of Hitler at all, however, is a boldness worth applauding. Taylor and Cusack make this imagined friendship at least plausible, and there is a pointed contrast in the circumstances of each man (the hand-to-mouth ordeal of the Munich streets for Hitler, the easy opulence of the professional class for Max) that foreshadows the rancorous scapegoating of German Jews. The momentousness of their relationship also tends to overshadow everyone else involved, including Molly Parker as Max's ballet-dancer wife and Leelee Sobieski as his bohemian mistress. Kevin McKidd as Georg Grosz is no more than a stage prop.
Yet the real problem the film confronts is seven decades' worth of Hitler portrayed as "monster" rather than man: what Ian Kershaw calls "the quintessential hate-figure of the 20th century". For all Noah Taylor's efforts to incarnate him as a pitiable nonentity, his subsequent infamy keeps occluding the vision. The very mention of his name sounds like a kind of historical whoopee-cushion. At one point Max turns to him and says, with wry affection: "You're an awfully hard man to like, Hitler," and the instinct is to giggle: you feel certain you've heard the understatement of the century.Reuse content