Max is the (of course) fictional story of the thirty year old World War I veteran Adolf Hitler entering into an uneasy relationship of sorts with a hot shot young Jewish art dealer who may or may not be willing to exhibit Hitler’s paintings in his gallery.
That’s a decidedly peculiar premise, one I had misgivings about. But I also was curious to see if someone had pulled off the trick of making a worthwhile film from it, so I decided to give this movie a shot.
Having now done so, my opinion is the movie does not succeed. There are promising and thought-provoking elements to it along the way, but besides being implausible, the parallel universe the movie resides in turns out to be only moderately interesting, and as far as I can see to provide little information about our own world.
Hitler himself is an intriguing little fellow in the film, a nervous, intense, impoverished, utterly humorless loner, obsessed with purity (of personal habits, of “blood”), desperately needing to believe himself destined for greatness of one kind or another, not seeing any point in living if he isn’t.
At first he can only imagine that dream coming true in the realm of art, which is his passion. With great trepidation—for he is terrified of criticism, of failure, of finding out he’s not what he thinks he is—he shows samples of his work to Max, the art dealer.
Max finds it competent but no more, yet he’s intrigued by Hitler’s passion and intensity, convinced that if he were willing to reveal more of himself, to be more vulnerable, to expose his inner loves and his inner demons on the canvas, he has considerable potential as an artist.
Hitler cannot fully compute such an assessment, and is simultaneously intrigued by and suspicious of it. He thinks of painting, of artistic talent, in much more concrete, cut and dried terms—that you’re able to do this, this, and this accurately with a brush. This other stuff sounds a little too hoity toity to him, but he’s wary of dismissing it entirely.
So he enters into a complex relationship with Max, where Max is in turns his friend, a hated symbol of the Establishment (Jewish, wealthy, debauched lifestyle, intellectual, etc.) that’s trying to keep him down and deny his talent, and a mentor. He’s desperate for Max’s approval, and despises both himself and Max because of that.
Meanwhile he takes his first halting steps into a part time career in politics, or at least oratory for fringe political parties.
His attitude about this is ambivalent. He mostly treats it as just something to pay the bills until he can get his art career off the ground.
But does he believe all the vicious rhetoric he’s spewing?
Yes and no. It overlaps to some extent with some of the things he himself had already been saying, so he’s not just reading someone else’s script. It’s at least somewhat sincere.
But he’s also putting on a show, learning to give the audience what it wants. He’s pleased when he sees Max at one of his speeches in a beer hall, and afterwards he’s eager to know what he thought, still as approval seeking as ever. He doesn’t want to talk about the ideas he expressed, but about the speech as a performance. He seems not the least self-conscious to be discussing with the Jewish Max a speech that was in part a vicious, anti-Semitic diatribe, because the content isn’t relevant to the present conversation, which concerns his skills at the public speaking itself.
To some extent he seems to see himself as playing a part. I’m reminded of the journalist who met with the notorious Senator Joe McCarthy off the record, nervously prepared to denounce him to his face and grill him on all the evil he’d unleashed on the world, only to find that the Senator was an avuncular, back-slapping, regular Joe who just wanted to have a beer together and shoot the breeze, and whose attitude toward all that demagoguery and such that he was known for was that that was just the part he played in public, the lines he uttered, the attitudes he feigned, to achieve his ends.
The Hitler of the movie is considerably more intense and sincere in his ideology than that, but not so much that the politics isn’t something he’d toss aside in a second if he could succeed as an artist.
Then he undergoes an epiphany. Maybe art doesn’t have to be painting. Surely rhetoric, propaganda, oratory are “arts” of a sort as well. Maybe he has as much or more talent in those areas as in painting. Maybe Max is right that the key to achieving artistic greatness is for him to have the courage to let out his inner self and his passion, only instead of on the canvas it should be through politics and oratory.
He excitedly tries to explain this to Max, but Max doesn’t get it. He can’t see those things as “art,” evidently on the grounds that the spoken word is ephemeral, you can’t hold it in your hands. To take the emotions unleashed in his speeches and somehow transfer that energy to his painting, yes, that could improve his art. But the speeches as speeches? Politics as politics? How is that art?
An ironically concrete interpretation of art by the modern art enthusiast, by the way.
Hitler’s frustration that he can’t make Max understand sends him into a rant. He tries to impress upon him that when he’s manipulating a crowd with his rhetoric, he is both the artist and the art. “I am the avant garde!” he shrieks.
Still, this realization isn’t enough for him to switch dreams. It’s closed the gap to where it’s much closer whether he prefers to express himself—to seek greatness—as a painter or in the political realm, but the former still holds a narrow lead.
The movie, which of course is already fanciful by nature, ends with an even more fanciful conclusion, a contrived series of coincidences to explain which of the two paths Hitler ultimately chose and why.
There’s some thought-provoking stuff here, and the movie held my interest moderately well. Though I haven’t mentioned it, I also appreciated that the film provided at least some sense of the social and political milieu of postwar Germany that helped shape Hitler and his eventual political career.
And I will say I don’t share the outrage that I understand was quite common concerning this movie over Hitler being portrayed as a complex person with good and bad traits and human impulses and motivations, rather than as the Devil incarnate. I’m not bothered by that. I’m sure he had dreams, had passions, had admirable traits—or at least mundane human traits—of one kind or another. I don’t think to condemn his actions you’re obligated to deny that he could have had characteristics in his younger years to render him a partly sympathetic figure.
But my problem is I don’t see the point of the whole exercise. I’d understand if it were history. If a historian claimed that Hitler did this, this, and this, for these reasons; and that if this hadn’t happened, he likely would have chosen this other path; and that his ideas about this evolved in this way, then I can see why that would be worth hearing about and debating.
But why should I care about this character named Hitler who isn’t Hitler? A make believe Jewish art mentor doesn’t add any new data to what we know about Hitler, doesn’t better enable us to explain something about Hitler’s future behavior, because it’s, well, make believe.
Did the real Hitler have the beliefs, attitudes, values, and experiences of this Hitler? It’s a work of fiction, so by definition the answer is “no” (or at least “not necessarily”). Learning about this fictional character doesn’t tell us whether Hitler could have been enticed away from his political career when it was in its earliest stages if only he could have exhibited his paintings at an art gallery and made some sales.
I don’t know that it tells us much of anything, at least anything of historical importance, about Hitler. But then what’s the point?
I’m ambivalent about whether to recommend Max. I see it as at least as much a failure as a success, but because it’s so unusual and maybe will speak to people on different levels than what I got from it, I lean toward the view that people should probably see it and make their own assessment.