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Max - Preview



Preview by: Jack Foley

ONCE Hollywood hits upon an idea - be it good or bad - the subject tends to be done to death. It’s rather like waiting for a bus; you wait ages, then several seem to come along at once.

At the start of 2002, audiences received a glut of patriotic mission movies, those which pitted the US against the rest of the world, righting the wrongs of the current climate. Likewise, towards the end, the spy genre was given a boost.

At the start of 2003, it appears that mankind’s darkest hour, The Holocaust, is the theme of choice; though whether audiences will want to endure a flood of movies on such a harrowing subject remains to be seen.

Previous attempts to portray it have been greeted with either widespread acclaim and awards galore (as in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List or Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful) or critical derision and empty cinemas (as in Robin Williams’ Jakob The Liar).

First to show among the current crop is Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, which most definitely falls into the former category, having already won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and being named as best film by the National Society of Film Critics in America.

Yet, there are more to come. The Grey Zone, for example, will explore one of the most difficult aspects of the Holocaust, the role of the Sonderkommando (the death camp inmates charged with guiding their fellow Jews into the gas chambers and recovering their corpses afterwards), while Costa Gavras’s Amen tells the story of SS Officer, Kurt Gerstein, who smuggled information about the Final Solution to the Allies.

Sobibor, meanwhile, is Claude Lanzmann’s latest, a film which began life as an interview. It tells the story of the 1943 uprising at the Sobibor death camp, as conveyed in an interview with Yehuda Lerner.

But perhaps the most controversial movie to emerge from the current crop is Max, starring John Cusack, which takes a hypothetical look at the life of Adolf Hitler before he came to power, and asks the ultimate question, ‘what if?’

Cusack stars as a fictional German Jewish art dealer, Max Rothman, who becomes involved with an aspiring artist, namely Hitler, years before his ascent to power; while the film considers the question of whether Hitler could have channelled his rage into the canvas and refrained from the path he eventually took.

Needless to say, the film caused a storm in certain quarters of America, with many calling for audiences to boycott it.

Cusack, however, remains fiercely protective of it. In an interview with Empire Online, for instance, he says that the film ‘doesn't condone or sympathise with Hitler… it just looks at him as a complex human being. An evil one, but a human being nonetheless."

It took producer, Andras Harmori, 18 months to secure financing for the project, with London-based Pathé International investing the first portion and he remains indebted to the stern commitment of Cusack, who took no salary for his work on the film.

Max subsequently debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and drew considerable acclaim, although it continues to anger many people.

New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, branded the film a cynical exploitation, while the Jewish Defence League launched a campaign to block Lions Gate, the film's American distributor, from releasing it.

An official for the group, Brett Stone, declared on their website, that ‘not only is the film in bad taste, it is also a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community’.

His statement adds: "There is no moral justification for making such a movie. To glorify or humanize Hitler makes a mockery of the 12 million - 6 million of them Jewish - victims of Hitler's tyranny ... This is not art! This is obscenity!"

Cusack, for his part, remained perplexed that many of the people criticising the film had not even bothered to see it before commenting.

US reaction

Critics in America, however, refused to jump on board the hysteria and appear to have judged it on its own merits.

The New York Times described it as ‘fascinating and psychologically credible’, while Hollywood Reporter felt that it ‘makes connections and provokes ideas worth considering’.

E! Online awarded it a B and said that it was ‘a fine, oddly intriguing movie’, while Film Threat announced that ‘for Cusack… this is a tour de force’.

LA Weekly, however, felt that it contained ‘one idea too many by a writer-director with a penchant for going over the top’, while Slant Magazine felt that it was ‘smothered and crippled by Meyjes's tedious dissertation on the art’.

Entertainment Weekly, however, felt that ‘it challenges this nervy oddity like modern art should’, while BoxOffice Magazine felt that it is ‘a smart, provocative drama that does the nearly impossible: It gets under the skin of a man we only know as an evil, monstrous lunatic’.

The Los Angeles Daily News, however, concludes this round-up, stating that ‘it's provocative stuff, but the speculative effort is hampered by [Noah] Taylor's cartoonish performance and the film's ill-considered notion that Hitler's destiny was shaped by the most random of chances’.

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