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A new film, Max, tells of the fictional friendship between a Jewish art dealer and a youthful Adolf Hitler. In the United States, the Jewish Defense League is calling for the film to be banned – because of its attempts to portray the Führer as a real, fallible person. Why, asks Andrew Gumbel, is it so hard to believe that evil can have a human face?
24 September 2002
You're an awfully hard man to like, Hitler, but I'm going to try," says John Cusack's character in the new movie Max, which just had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Cusack plays a Jewish art dealer, the eponymous (and fictional) Max Rothman, who returns to Munich from the war front in 1918 with his right arm blown off but his appetite for life still very much intact. The film recounts the story of his chance encounter with a painter and fellow- veteran from the trenches, one Adolf Hitler. And it tracks his valiant, doomed efforts to channel Hitler's brooding, resentful, seething persona into an artistic statement rather than a conduit for the politics of hate.
Cusack's line, flippant as it sounds at first reading, is actually a succinct summary of what the film sets out to achieve. Menno Meyjes, the Dutch screenwriter who wrote and directed Max, wanted to look at Hitler at a time in his life when his future could have gone in any number of directions. The film asks what it was that steered him away from art, his abiding passion, down the path to extreme nationalism, virulent anti-Semitism, and all-out war. In other words, Meyjes wanted to take Hitler out of his usual historical context and consider him, not as the great bogeyman of the 20th century, not as the goose-stepping, ranting, insane monster who destroyed half of Europe, but rather as a human being.
And that's when the trouble started.
The very concept of Hitler as a person imbued with human feelings and human fallibilities so riled the film's eventual producer, Andras Hamori, that his first reaction on reading the script was to stay as far away from it as possible. "The very word "Hitler" was taboo in my family," he said recently. "It was mentioned in the same breath as the Antichrist – as if he was this pure, otherworldly evil. Politically and emotionally I couldn't imagine making this movie."
Even once Hamori was won over to the idea – by coming to see that the Hitler taboo was worth breaking, precisely because the nature of his evil stemmed from his flawed humanity – he and Meyjes discovered that most of the potential backers that they approached had the same misgivings, if not worse. Investors who scheduled meetings pretended that they had been mistaken for someone else, or hid in their offices and instructed their secretaries to say that they were not there. One began his remarks to the film-makers by stating, bluntly: "This movie should not be made."
That it was made at all was largely down to the tenacity of John Cusack, its star, who put all other projects on hold while he helped the producers to find their $10m budget. The shivers that Max sent down people's spines before it was completed were as nothing, though, compared with the reaction after word first started trickling out to the general public that it was about to hit the festival circuit in anticipation of a cinematic release in the United States.
As early as May, four months before anyone other than the film-makers themselves had had a chance to see it, the Jewish Defense League, a prominent pro-Israeli lobby group, was pressuring Max's distributor, Lions Gate Films, to withhold it from public view. "Not only is the film in bad taste," said a JDL spokesman, Brett Stone, basing his knowledge of Max almost entirely on an item in a Hollywood gossip column, "it is also a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community... There is nothing human about the most vicious, vile murderer in world history."
The JDL even encouraged its members to "speak up for those whom Hitler silenced forever", and bombard Lions Gate with messages of disapproval. And where they began, others soon followed. The chairman of another prominent Jewish lobby group, the Anti-Defamation League, said that he found the idea of a film about the young Hitler "trivialising and offensive". The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, noting a flurry of Hitler-related projects in the works in film and on television, wrote a tongue-in-cheek send-up of what she saw as a retelling of serious history in glossily simplistic mode, or "lifestyles of the Reich and Fascist".
Clearly, people have got a thing about Hitler, and it has to do with a lot more than the merits or otherwise of a relatively modest independent film production. Max, as it turns out, could not be more scrupulous about its own credentials and goes out of its way – perhaps a little too far for its own cinematic good – to depict the circumstances of the young Hitler in the broadest possible historical context. The film is chockful of references to the artistic and intellectual currents of early Weimar Germany. How many times, after all, does a mainstream American film treat its audience to disquisitions on Nietzschean philosophy, Expressionism and Modernism, Georg Grosz, Dadaism and the Futurist manifesto? In the press notes to the movie, Meyjes lists among his many influences (tick them as you go) Ron Rosenbaum and Ian Kershaw's biographies of Hitler; Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New, about the rise and fall of Modernism; Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, about the war and the avant-garde; Hannah Arendt's writings on evil, notably the banality thereof; and a book called The Fascist Revolution, by George Mosse, which we are told Meyjes found "enormously influential". Give the man points for doing his homework.
If anything, though, Max broaches its subject too timidly. We are never given much opportunity to like Hitler, who is played with a certain sinister furtiveness by the talented Australian actor Noah Taylor (best known for his roles in Shine and Almost Famous). The film is set up as some kind of battle for his soul, with the urbane Max Rothman encouraging his artistic talent despite his obnoxious personality, and the steely Captain Mayr, his army mentor, urging him to become, well, a vituperative little Nazi. But we are never really shown what Hitler is made of, or what his allure to his future followers might be. When Cusack's Rothman exclaims at one point, "Hitler is obsessed with blood! I think – I hope – it is a metaphor", the line is not chilling so much as oddly, perhaps inappropriately, comic. Hitler's beer-hall speeches come off as shrill and unconvincing (certainly compared with the later real thing, as captured by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will), and in one sequence, his flamboyantly racist rhetoric is intercut with solemn scenes of Jewish prayer – a device that seems to serve no other purpose than to reassure audiences whose side the film-makers are on.
How Max shapes up to the pre-emptive criticisms is only part of the point, however. Although the film's detractors may have done themselves few favours (the controversy has been an absolute gift for Max's publicity team), they are culturally illuminating for at least two reasons. First, they demonstrate that an influential body of opinion in the United States – most but not all of it Jewish, most but not all of it attached to the powerful pro-Israeli lobby – has developed a knee-jerk aversion to anyone who challenges the strict Manichean mindset whereby Hitler can be seen only as absolute evil, beyond human understanding, and the Jews, past, present and future, as absolute victims of history. This aversion, and the sway it holds, manifested itself last year when the prize-winning independent film The Believer, a shocking examination of aggression and victimhood as told through the story of an orthodox Jew who becomes a neo-Nazi, was withheld from cinematic release in the US because of the objections of a single rabbi at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. It manifested itself again on a smaller scale earlier this year when an art museum in Massachussetts exhibited some of Hitler's early paintings in a generally well-received show entitled Prelude to a Nightmare. The museum was lambasted in the columns of The Wall Street Journal and The Jerusalem Post, among other places, for its "bad taste... utter insensitivity and political stupidity". The point is not that the film or the show were anti-Semitic; in fact, the director of The Believer and the museum curator are both Jewish. The point is that they dared to be intellectually curious about subjects that are still – 57 years after Nazism came crashing down in the rubble of occupied Berlin – considered politically taboo. The pro-Israeli lobby does not continue to demonise Hitler simply to demonstrate the self-evident historical truth of his wicked acts; he, and the Holocaust, also serve as a foil, cloaking every questionable action of the present-day Israeli government in the mantle of victimhood.
It's a powerful argument, and one that holds temptations to more people than just supporters of Israel. The same Manichean logic was at work in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when George Bush talked about the struggle between good and evil ("we" were virtuous and "they" were nefarious, even when it was our bombs raining down on their civilian population in Afghanistan). Now, as another war is looming in Iraq, we have not only Manichean logic but also direct comparisons between Saddam and Hitler. Saddam is evil just as Hitler was evil, the argument runs, therefore we have to get rid of him. The exact same comparison was used by President Bush's father during the Gulf War a decade ago. (Our own Tony Blair was portrayed as a Hitler figure just last weekend at the Liberty & Livelihood march...)
The funny thing about Manichean logic, though, is how easily it can be turned on its head. In the past couple of weeks, Mr Bush has not only tarred others with the Hitler comparison; he has had it thrown back at himself. The most striking, and controversial, example of this came when the German Justice Minister, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, was quoted saying that the US leadership was using war to distract its people from domestic problems, just as Hitler had done. Whether or not she actually said this – the ensuing diplomatic stink caused her to issue a denial – she was far from the first person to make similar comparisons.
A left-wing columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, recently turned to the writings of Hermann Goering to understand the propaganda mechanisms being used by the Bush White House to stir Americans into the mood for war. "It is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament or a communist dictatorship," he quoted from one of Goering's speeches (and, strikingly, it's not that far from the political experience of the US over the past year). "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger."
Curiously, one of the best scenes in Max addresses this very issue of war and propaganda. At an artistic happening at Max Rothman's art gallery, players address the audience on how words get turned into slogans, and slogans push them towards hatred of an unknown and unknowable enemy. Hitler is in the audience, and seems to lap up the lecture on propaganda (though not its critical intent); it is only when Rothman himself, stripped down to the waist, descends into a giant meat-grinder, causing blood-red sausage meat to emerge at the other end, that Hitler protests and denounces the whole show as disgusting.
These are themes that have suddenly become disconcertingly topical. It's not hard to see who, in government and elsewhere in politics, might be unsympathetic to a film that deconstructs the whole notion of demonising those whom we fancy we despise. If Hitler can be shown to have been more complicated, more attuned to the slipperiness of political language, more wrenchingly human than the Hitler of our crudest night- mares, then where does that leave the comparison between Hitler and Saddam? Where does it leave the whole notion of a global struggle between absolute good and absolute evil? Max is probably more subversive than it knows; given its long gestation period, and the utter unpredictability of recent world events, it is certainly more subversive than it could ever possibly have set out to be. No wonder it is making people nervous.
'Max' opens in December