John Cusack never imagined he’d be talking about the humanity of the führer. But in promoting Max—in which he plays Max Rothman, a fictional Jewish art dealer who befriends a young soldier/painter named Adolf Hitler—this Hollywood star does just that. The world tends to view Hitler as some kind of monster, but ultimately the horrors of the Third Reich originated from a man who made certain moral choices, Cusack sayssomething that may be uncomfortable to consider. “If he’s got horns, and he came from another planet and was dropped on earth to take over the world, then we wouldn’t have to address it.”
In conjecturing about Hitler’s youth, Max does humanize him-and it’s disturbing. Noah Taylor (Shine) plays the führer-in-training as an annoying, charmless, vitriolic young man. He’s unlikeable, but he’s recognizably flesh and blood.
He’s also an easy target, and Cusack’s character gets in a couple of jabs: “You’re a bit lazy, Hitler,” and, “You’re an awfully hard man to like.” At a preview screening, these lines, along with the soon-to-be-classic, “Hitler, c’mon, I’ll buy you a glass of lemonade,” drew laughter. Cusack seems surprised. “I bet,” he says, “it was nervous laughter.” The Chicagoand L.A.-based star says he had many reasons for wanting to be involved in this risky project: “I was interested in the period, in the art, in exploring the banality of evil and the birth of modernity, which sprang from the First World War. Modernism was born out of the trenches.” He was also won over by the fact that director Menno Meyjes wasn’t making a period piece. These characters, says Cusack, could exist now.
That is actually one of the more jarring aspects of Max, which is set in 1918. Cusack’s character, a First World War veteran who lost an arm in combat, seems more a product of modern times than of more than eight decades ago.
His speech and overall manner seem anachronistic: it’s a too-clever performance. But the film, with its bold and bizarre concept, leaves a lasting impression.
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