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IN SHORT: Tremendous writing overwhelms any preconceived objections we had. [Rated R for language. 108 minutes]
There are as many conflicting stories about those who fought, and the battles they fought in "The Great War," later renamed World War I, for obvious reasons. Our grandfather was a machine gunner in the Ardennes Forest, and would never speak of his experiences in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Even bloodier was the Battle of Ypres, where the film Max essentially begins. The Kaiser's troops, dressed in their finest battle raiment, showed up on horses. The Allied forces showed up with tanks and shredded hundreds of thousands of Axis troops.
One of those horse riding Hussars was Max Rothman (John Cusack). Prior to the war Rothman was a promising Modernist painter. Returning to Munich minus one arm, Rothman reestablishes himself as an art Dealer and uses the space in an abandoned train ironworks to establish a gallery of Modern artists. He sets a high price for art whose value has yet to be determined, and knows how to work the speculative crowd. His support system is strong. Rothman is a happily married man whose wife (Molly Parker) and two children enjoy the cross-pollinization of cultures that marked post-War Germany as a remarkably progressive country, for a short time. Rothman has a decent amount of wealth in the bank and a mistress (Leelee Sobieski) on the side. With the war coming to an end, he has bright hope for the future, even though the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ends the war, humiliates his homeland.
Still, there are new artistic discoveries to be made. Even a greasy looking Army corporal, who delivers champagne to one of his shows, carries a portfolio under his arm looking to sell his work. Rothman doesn't think much of what he sees, but recognizes a passion and anger in the man. Knowing that fledgling painters must be encouraged, he tries to get the man to put his passions on canvas and takes the man under his wing.
The Corporal's name is Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor).
Max is not a glorification of Hitler in any manner whatsoever, nor is it an apologetic analysis of what made this nutcase tick. By way of explanation let's talk about another film seen earlier this year, David Jacobson's Dahmer. It's a terribly written film with a riveting performance by Jeremy Renner as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, that gives no clue as to what made Dahmer into the fiend he became. Every critic that walked out of the screening room, ourselves included, decried the fact that we knew nothing more about this lunatic than before we planted for the film. "If only such and such had been explored more..." was the general complaint. Max, though a fictional story, successfully addresses those kinds of complaint.
That soon to be ex-soldier is a vile, petty and angry small man who lives a severe lifestyle. He doesn't socialize and has no friends. He doesn't eat meat, drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks. He doesn't smoke and refuses the prostitutes that service all the other army men. He is an angry young nobody, penniless and homeless who lives in his Army barracks, doing laundry and swabbing out the bathrooms for a place to sleep and a few German Marks. He despises the Bolsheviks who are making a play for the Government left in ruins by the fallen Kaiser. Still, he gets his food from their soup kitchens.
Hitler's former commanding officer, propagandist Captain Mayr (Ulrich Thomsen), and other ranking officers spend their time conceiving plans by which they can prepare the German people for the next war, one that will restore German prestige and match the victories that fill Teutonic legend. Hitler, a raging cauldron of hate and anger and desperation and disgust, is easily convinced by Mayr to take a job making speeches about backstabbers who cost Germany the War Any back stabber will do and, since Hitler hates Jews with every fibre of his being, they'll do fine.
Rothman is Jewish. So are we, by the way, as were most of the critics we sat with in a New York screening room. You can easily imagine the bitching that went on before the lights went down: "Why would anyone make a film about a Jew supporting Hitler?" Writer Menno Meyjes has already shown talent in his screenplays for The Color Purple and, IOHO one of Steven Spielberg's most underrated films, Empire of the Sun. Meyjes has an extremely talented pen and puts it to its best use in this film. There is a very fine line here separating fine from insulting storytelling. He never crosses over from the "fine" side and this first time director gets noteworthy performances from all of his cast. Noah Taylor's performance as Hitler is a remarkable one. Never sympathetic and never a stereotype, it is one of the best performances we've seen all year. Cusack's performance as Rothman, and that character's encouragement of Hitler, is strictly business. As the film progresses that support dwindles quickly. Max culminates in an ending filled with irony, concluding its story in a surprisingly fulfilling manner.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Max, he would have paid . . .
Max is one of the most challenging, and one of the best, films of the year.
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