A one-armed German-Jewish gallery owner in 1918 Munich, Max Rothman is also many other things: witness to history, savage wit, adoring husband, philandering lover, passionate intellect, forward thinker, outrageous optimist, unabashed idealist, not to mention artistic advisor to the young and unaccomplished homeless veteran Adolf Hitler. Told with bold humor and infused with the fervent spirit of modern art, Max's story parallels that of the 20th century - as he encounters a man who can't channel his fury and loneliness into art and instead chooses to become an architect of evil and mass destruction.
Max Rothman may never have existed, but his roots lie firmly in history. He is a fictional creation sprung from the imagination of Menno Meyjes, the Academy Award nominated screenwriter of "The Color Purple" who makes his directorial debut here. Meyjes based Max on an amalgam of historical figures. These range from leading avant-garde European artists who, in the aftermath of World War One, tried to convey the madness of the age to a variety of Jewish art buyers who helped Hitler sell his paintings. Many influences went into the makeup of Max, but the ultimate result is a man consummately of his times - one who has survived the horrors of war and is electrified by the promise of the future.
"Max is a sort of combination of many people but most importantly he is representative of the height of this kind of profoundly idealistic and humanistic European Jewish life that reached its zenith or apogee before the Holocaust," says Meyjes. "He comes from a world in which everybody is highly educated, thrives on wit, and where people truly believe, in a way we no longer do -- that culture can change the world. It's a way of life that has been lost to a certain degree, a very un-ironic view of life and art, but one that profoundly influenced the last century. It is into the periphery of Max's life that Hitler comes, and he is just one aspect of it, but one that will ultimately alter Max's destiny. For it is Max who asks Hitler to make art of his despair and frustration and it is the one thing Hitler, tragically, is unable to do…or is he, but in a way that nobody ever could have foreseen?"
From the beginning, Meyjes dared 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. Meyjes perceived of this Hitler as the 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. This Hitler is, for a while, just another wanna-be artist in Max's extraordinary life who nobody viewed as all that important until he begins to put an appalling spin of political intolerance on even his friendships. 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. This year, an exhibit of Hitler's paintings entitled Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics and Hitler's Early Years in Vienna 1906-1913 was 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.
But despite such rigorous research, Meyjes mostly wanted Max Rothman to exist in a kind of 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, something John Cusack helped him to do. "I've never seen any transformation quite like what John did to become Max," he says. "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?"