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
films 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 Hitlers 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, were rid of that forever.
"But thats 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 Hitlers 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
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
An exhibit of Hitlers paintings, entitled Prelude to a
Nightmare: Art, Politics and Hitlers Early Years in Vienna
1906-1913, was recently shown at Williams College Museum of Art,
drawing both controversy and acclaim for the curators courage
and the shows relevance to contemporary discussions on the
intersection of art and politics.
Meyjes comments: "The biographer, Ron Rosenbaum, quotes
Hitlers architect, Albert Speer, as saying: If you
want to understand Hitler, you have to understand he was an artist
"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 hell
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 Eksteins 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 Mosses The Fascist Revolution, enormously
Meyjes found himself pouring through biographies of Hitler, including
Ron Rosenbaums Explaining Hitler, and Ian Kershaws
Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, which explores Hitlers 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 todays culture.
For his part, it was something that actor, John Cusack, helped
him to do.
"Ive 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?"