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Max - Exploring the roots of Hitler's evil



Feature by: Jack Foley

FROM the outset, writer/director, Menno Meyjes, decided to conceive the fictional Adolf Hitler who appears in Max to be something he has rarely been in cinema - a human being relieved of his clichés. Aware of the possible furore it would create, Meyjes created the film’s Hitler as an anonymous man people met when he was just another ragged veteran on the street, before there was even an inkling he would change the future – and passionately defends the film against the inevitable backlash it has.

Meyjes knew he was taking a big gamble in turning the iconic Hitler of myth into flesh, but he also felt strongly that such a portrait would more starkly reveal the extreme profanity and horrifying consequences of Hitler’s choices.

He explains: "What Hitler did was so awful that we all desire a kind of extreme grandeur to surround him – we want to believe he was a force born in a cloud of sulfur who disappeared in a puff of gasoline and now, thank God, we’re rid of that forever.

"But that’s not the truth. Hitler was a human being, and it is the fact that he made a choice to become a monster that is essential to understanding him. There are Hitlers of the future lurking, and I think if you want to comprehend what makes evil tick, you have to begin with ordinary human emotions."

The question of where Hitler’s painting career fits into the overall picture of his life has recently come to the fore.

For decades, a rumor persisted that Adolf Hitler had been a house painter before he became dictator of the German state – but this is far from the truth.

In fact, Hitler was serious about becoming a real artist, although he would never prove to have the talent.

He had developed a particular passion for Wagner as a boy and dreamed that he, too, would one day create classic works of architecture and art.

When he was 18, he applied to the Vienna Art Academy, where he was promptly turned down. Nevertheless, Hitler continued to paint, sketch and follow art in the seminal period just before he made his political debut in September of 1919, first in Vienna, then in Munich.

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

Meyjes comments: "The biographer, Ron Rosenbaum, quotes Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, as saying: ‘If you want to understand Hitler, you have to understand he was an artist first.’

"This is what inspired me to write Max. The reality is that if you showed somebody the Hitler of 1918 and said in 15 years this man will be Chancellor of Germany and in 20 years he’ll have set the world on fire, no one would have believed you.

"Because, at that time, he might have gone in any number of ways. He was the man everyone thought was just a joke, a nerd, the guy who could not fit in. So where did his power come from?

"In the film, we take the view that the root of his evil was his disappointment in his inability to express himself. He makes a decision in the end to focus his energy on anti-Semitic speeches, but 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."

Meyjes delved into intensive research to create Max Rothman and the alternately light-and-dark modern-art world in which he dwells.

He cites Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, a controversial history about how World War One influenced the avant-garde, as well as Robert Hughes’ Shock of the New, about the rise and fall of modernism.

He also found George Mosse’s The Fascist Revolution, enormously influential.

Meyjes found himself pouring through biographies of Hitler, including Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler, and Ian Kershaw’s Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, which explores Hitler’s transition from a shiftless nobody living on the streets to all-powerful dictator of the German state, as well as reading Mein Kampf.

Meyjes further immersed himself in as much WWI-era art as possible, becoming fascinated by the outrageously optimistic and often comically strident Futurist Manifesto, which celebrates a brave new modern world of speed, action, machinery, technology and aggression.

And, in addition to all of that, says Meyjes, ‘a major beacon that I looked to in this was Hannah Arendt’, referring to the philosopher who wrote about the ‘banality of evil’ and the notion that only through ‘the activity of thinking’ can humankind abstain from evil.

He then created the character of Max Rothman specifically 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.

For his part, it was something that actor, John Cusack, helped him to do.

"I’ve never seen any transformation quite like what John did to become Max," adds Meyjes. "You look at him in this role and you think where did all those people go – these very passionate people who had so much faith and belief in the power of art?"

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