Just as writer-director Menno Meyjes' Max was premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, Overlook Press was shipping to bookstores Frederic Spotts' Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. Meyjes' film and Spotts' book say essentially the same thing: Adolf Hitler was a reluctant dictator, a potentially insignificant man who wanted only to spend his life painting but turned to politics when he discovered wanting to be an artist and being an artist were not quite the same thing. "I became a politician against my will," Hitler often said. "If someone else had been found, I would have never gone into politics. I would have become an artist or a philosopher." In the end, of course, his was the fine art of annihilation; he would use Europe as his canvas and the blood of millions as his paint to build a monument not to himself, he insisted, but all of Germany. "Repeatedly, throughout his career," Spotts writes, "Hitler complained about having to sacrifice his artistic interests to the burdens of governing." Somehow, he managed.
In Max, the would-be "Bohemian aesthete" of which Spotts writes is portrayed by Noah Taylor, best known for roles in such films as Almost Famous and Shine. Taylor plays Hitler as you imagine he might have been in those gray Munich days after the first World War--as a grimy miscreant, a glowering nobody who is all scowl and a shock of dark hair limply obscuring beady eyes. Meyjes, a directing novice whose screenwriting credits include The Color Purple and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade's story, has fictionalized the historical record; he did his research and filled in the estimable blanks with speculation, theory, distorted fact and nutty dialogue. It is hard not to giggle at a film in which John Cusack's Max Rothman, a German-Jewish art dealer who encourages Hitler to dig deeper and find an "authentic voice," tells the future Führer, "C'mon, Hitler, let me buy you a lemonade."
But well before its release, Max was greeted by anything but the sound of titters. In May, long before it debuted at Toronto in September, the Jewish Defense League demanded that Lions Gate Films, which is distributing Max, put the thing back on the shelf and leave it there. "Not only is the film in bad taste, it is also a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community," said the lobby organization's spokesman, who had only heard of the movie but not seen it, an entirely too familiar pattern among the so-called enlightened who would denounce art on a rumor. "There is no moral justification for making such a movie," read the JDL Web site. The Anti-Defamation League accused Meyjes of making a film that was "trivializing" a horrific man and downright "offensive"; in The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd damned Max and other Holocaust-centric films as glamorizing the "lifestyles of the Reich and Fascist."
About Frederic Spotts' book, nothing was said. By anybody. Hey, it's just a book.
But such reactions to Max were to be expected; the filmmakers would have been disappointed, most likely, had their movie slipped into theaters without the attendant controversy that turns novelties and oddities into box-office sleepers. The making of Max is a story full of similar tales: Meyjes, whose father had been in a prisoner-of-war camp, and producer Andras Hamorai, a Hungarian Jew whose mother and grandmother barely escaped the concentration camps by hiding in a neighbor's home, could find no funding for their film. Meyjes has a deal with Steven Spielberg's production company, and the Schindler's List director loved the script. Still, he told his protégé he couldn't and wouldn't touch Max. It wouldn't be prudent for the head of the Shoah Foundation to humanize Hitler.
Investors agreed to fund the $10 million project, then kept pulling out, even pretending to be other people so they wouldn't have to take meetings or return calls. They didn't want that blood on their hands. Only when Cusack read the script and said he would make no other movies till Max was funded--a trick he learned from old pal Nick Nolte, who did the same thing when he wanted to make North Dallas Forty and no one else did--were they able to attract European money. So, yeah, they expected the shit storm, and then some.
"It's one thing for people to say, 'Yeah, we want films that are smarter, more challenging,'" Cusack says. "Then they look at this and go, 'Oh, we don't want it to be that challenging, to be that smart. Let's just have this one go away. Let's write about Chicago,' you know? 'Or Training Day. OK, we can figure that one out.' I'm not dissing those movies, but this movie's not just about Hitler. It's also about Max, about the spirit that Hitler tried to kill. It's about the fusion of art and politics. This movie's about the future; that's why it's so fuckin' scary. The very people that bemoan the lack of ideas then attack the film."
At this point in the interview, at the very beginning, Cusack already sounds agitated, revved up. Then again, he has been talking about Max for months, doing interview after interview about this film, hammering into writers' heads that this is a Big Picture picture, something that'll last five years, 10 years from now. (Unlike, say, America's Sweethearts and Serendipity, which disappeared into the ether like helium balloons upon their release.) Some of his words throughout this conversation will ring familiar to anyone who's read more than one newspaper or magazine story on Max. Cusack will not only repeat things he has said to other journalists, but things he said 15 minutes earlier. He will twice refer to Modris Ekstein's book The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age as "the mind-blowing book" on the subject and twice ask his interrogator if he has seen the documentary The Architecture of Doom. The cynic will insist he isn't paying attention; the realist will admit he's working hard to sell a labor of love, perhaps to the point of collapse.
But it's not hard to see why Cusack would embrace Max, going so far as to put his career on hold till its completion: It's a movie packed with ideas, a movie about politics, a movie about a tyrant when he still wore training wheels. And Cusack has always fancied himself a humanist among the Hollywood heathens; however much he hates doing interviews, he loves the opportunity to blast whenever possible the National Rifle Association, any president named Bush, those who would call themselves "compassionate conservatives." He will talk at great length about supply-side economics, about the kitsch factor inherent in all political propaganda, about Michael Dukakis and that damned tank all those years ago. It's little wonder that Cusack for President chapters have popped up on dozens of college campuses, and they aren't even jokes: Money raised by these organizations has been donated to nonprofits that build schools in New York City, organizations that support campaign finance reform and civil-liberties groups.
Cusack sees in Max a movie that demands of its audience not a little attention and not a little participation. We're asked to view Hitler not as a monster, but as a lost and lonely man who could either disappear or destroy, depending on whether he listens to Rothman or the Army officer who sees in Hitler great potential for rabble-rousing. No matter how much the film irritates or accidentally amuses (too often the dialogue consists of people saying things like, "Who's that?" "Adolf Hitler." "Never heard of him." "You will."), you can't watch it passively. You will react to it. You will admire it, or you will loathe it. But you will not ignore it.
"It was such a strong piece on the page," Cusack says. "It was so kind of startling and invigorating, I just kind of rushed into it. I have a lot of faith that it's OK to make movies for people who think. It's not a bad thing. I think audiences are smarter than most filmmakers and studios give them credit for. I think there's a large number of the population who just want to go see movies to escape things, you know. They want to go see Maid in Manhattan. That's great. Those are escapist movies--the fantasies, the comedies. I like to make fantasies and comedies, but it's hard to make movies about history, about real things. I want to see those movies. I like movies that make me actually really pay attention, use the full capacity of my brain. That's a good thing. Let's make some more of those."
Some critics have said Cusack is entirely miscast as the avant-garde bon vivant Rothman, a husband and father with the boho girlfriend on the side. They see him not as a German-Jew (perhaps because he's Midwest Catholic?) with a missing right arm and a head full of passionate ideas about art and life and politics, but as that kickboxing kid who doesn't want to buy or sell or process anything bought or sold. They see him as they always have: as Lane Myers, Lloyd Dobler, Martin Blank, Rob Gordon--the suburban Everyman who's smarter than everyone else, more sensitive than everyone else and more ordinary than everyone else but nonetheless ends up with Ione Skye or Minnie Driver or Catherine Zeta-Jones.
But his Rothman fits snugly into the filmography, especially if one considers what Cameron Crowe said about his own movies. Not long ago, when speaking with the Dallas Observer, the writer-director of Say Anything... (starring Cusack) and Almost Famous (in which Taylor played a rock band's manager), Crowe said his movies were all about the very same thing: "the brutal journey of the idealist." Rothman easily fits the description. He thinks he can save Hitler's soul by getting him to look deep into his wounded heart. Rothman believes in beauty, in a new world sick of hate and violence. In 1920 Germany, the idealist doesn't stand a chance. The idealist will, sooner than later, end up with his back against a brick wall.
"Max was hard," Cusack says, taking a deep breath. "I kind of just do stuff that speaks to me, and if people like it, that's great. If they don't like it, I don't know what to say. Whatever I want to say, I try to say through these films, you know? I'm definitely with that. But this was hard. We even had reviewers in Toronto, instead of reviewing it in Toronto..." He pauses. "It was a stunning, stunning screening. You could say what you want, you could say you hated the film, but you couldn't say the energy wasn't there. You could cut it with a knife. But we've had major reviewers say, 'Well, I'm not going to write about it until I figure out how to handle it.' Well, what kind of shit is that? Write about it! This is what you do! This is an event! They want to see which way the wind blows, and I guess that's fair. You want to think about it, see it again. But it's a little bit more difficult when you do stuff like this. I don't know how often people make stuff like this."
Uh, not very?
"No, man," he says. "It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing."