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Arts & Culture Film Portraying Hitler As Artist Causes Stir Before It Hits Screens

December 6, 2002
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“Let’s not make this movie.”

This was producer Andra Hamori’s first reaction when he read the script for “Max,” a new film that explores the relationship in post-World War I Germany between a sophisticated Jewish art dealer named Max Rothman and the young man he attempts to take under his wing, a struggling artist named Adolf Hitler.

Hamori, a Hungarian-born Jew whose family was persecuted by the Nazis, ultimately was swayed by writer-director Menno Meyjes’ compelling vision for the film, and agreed to seek funding.

The catalyzing force came from the star power and commitment of John Cusack, who plays Rothman and reportedly took the part without pay.

Many potential financiers fled, deeming the project too controversial. After 18 months, however, Hamori, Cusack and Meyjes scraped together the $10 million needed for production.

Yet controversy still surrounds the film, which portrays Hitler as a struggling, insecure man in the immediate postwar years, before he became one of the most feared and loathed figures in world history.

So far, the objections have come from critics who have not actually seen the movie, which is due to be released in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 27, and has a wider release in Janauary.

In a column titled, “Lifestyles of the Reich and Fascist,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd lumped the film together with other recent representations of Hitler in the entertainment industry, including CBS’s upcoming miniseries on Hitler as a young man and a Hitler cameo in “The Producers.”

The Jewish Defense League’s “Armchair Activist,” Brett Stone, attacked the film on the organization’s Web site as “a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community.” This was after Stone read in a Fox news gossip column published on the Internet that “Max” would portray “Hitler as an attractive young man dining in cafes and chatting with friends.”

Roger Friedman wrote the Fox article after reading only an advanced copy of the screenplay — without seeing the masterful performance by Australian actor Noah Taylor, whose thoroughly unattractive young Hitler is incapable of “chatting” with friends in cafes.

Other Jewish organizations have not yet weighed in on the film, but few people who see the movie are likely to feel it shows Hitler in a positive light. Instead, the problem for many viewers is that the movie attempts to portray Hitler as human at all.

“These are documentaries about Hitler the man, Hitler the lover, Hitler the young person,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told Dowd of the recent portrayals of Hitler on film. “I find that trivializing and offensive.”

Meyjes anticipated this type of response.

“What Hitler did was so awful that we all desire a kind of extreme grandeur to surround him,” the film- maker said. “We want to believe he was a force born of a cloud of sulphur 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,” he continued. “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.”

To frame the human emotions that he believes shaped Hitler, Meyjes created a set of fictional characters that alternately ignore Hitler or mentor him in his early pursuits.

The story follows Hitler’s failed attempts to become recognized as a great artist. He meets Rothman, a witty, charming dealer of modern art who sells paintings by Max Ernst and Georg Grosz in an abandoned locomotive factory turned avant-garde gallery.

Like Hitler, Rothman is a war veteran. He lost an arm in the trenches, and after the two men meet for the first time, he realizes that they fought on the same battlefields.

This in part explains Rothman’s sympathy for Hitler, who paints kitschy portraits of dogs and flat battlefield landscapes.

Rothman tells Hitler to dig for deeper emotions and channel into art the energy he puts into making anti- Semitic speeches for the army. Hitler, however, grows frustrated by his failure to express himself artistically.

Much of the inspiration for the movie came from Hitler’s real artistic failures. He applied and was rejected twice from Vienna’s art academy after his drawing skills were described as “unsatisfactory.”

Many of his early works were displayed in a recent exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts, titled “Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler’s Early Years in Vienna, 1906- 1913.”

During that time, Hitler was obsessed with Wagnerian opera, grandiose architecture and inventive graphic design.

“If you want to understand Hitler, you have to understand he was an artist first,” Nazi architect Albert Speer was quoted as saying in Ron Rosenbaum’s biography, “Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil.”

That ambiguous and disturbing quote inspired Meyjes — who previously wrote the screenplay for “The Color Purple” — to write “Max” and make it his directorial debut.

The script’s focus on art — which includes discussions of aesthetics and conceptual movements of the time such as futurism, cubism and dadaism — is one of the film’s strongest elements.

But the movie fails to explore completely Hitler’s transformation from bad artist to fascist extremist. In the end of the film we see his plans for Nazi Germany as an aesthetic vison: Rothman misinterprets the uniforms, flags and sweeping urban plans that Hitler has designed as an abstract futurist ideal.

Rothman is misled because he believes in the transformative power of art. But Hitler is not such an innocent.

The film portrays Hitler as a weak man, influenced alternately by two characters. One is Rothman, who tries to make him choose art over hate. The other is Captain Mayr, played by Ulrich Thomsen, who recognizes Hitler’s skill as a demagogical orator and cultivates him as a leader of the burgeoning National Socialist Party.

Young Hitler is persuaded by simplistic propaganda. He enthusiastically applauds a primitive puppet show about the Jews poisoning the blood of the Aryans. He later has an epiphany and frantically scribbles on a scrap of paper: “Art + politics = power.”

That equation reduces what the movie is trying to say: It’s doubtful that Hitler was an unwilling participant in politics who might have given it all up if only he had gotten his own art exhibit.

Art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who reviewed the Williams College show for the New Yorker, said that the exhibit left “no doubt that Nazism was a singular invention and that Hitler was its indispensable author. Without him, fascism might well have succeed in Germany, but nothing foreordained Nazism’s blend of dash and malice, its brilliant technology and skulking atavism. It seems clear that Hitler employed artistic means — hypnotic oratory, moving spectacle, elegant design — not just to gain power but to wield it in the here and now.”

Meyjes has discussed the philosopher Hannah Arendt and her observations on the banality of evil.

“It was all about the logistics,” Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of the Nazi’s plans to exterminate the Jews, told Arendt. “I didn’t really have a point of view on it. “

But Hitler was not Eichmann: He was not following orders, he was giving them, and in doing so he attempted to shape the world according to his own perverted design.

Schjeldahl continues by saying, “all racism, on some level, is aesthetic,” a “projection of ‘the ugly,’ ” or “the world according to certain tastes.”

If the Jewish community is offended by “Max,” it may not be because Meyjes was brave enough to make a beautiful film trying to understand Hitler as a human facing real choices. Instead, it may be because the filmmaker did not go far enough to show how he ultimately made a choice — the most devastating one imaginable.

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