Writ. & dir. Menno Meyjes; feat. John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Leelee Sobieski, Molly Parker, Ulrich Thomsen (R)

Set in Munich in 1919, Max is a film whose chief appeal is the haughty thrill of historical irony. The Weimar Republic was a period of cultural and political tumult and economic adversity that we now know as the squall before the storm, a lively prelude to the Nazi death camps. If only Adolf Hitler, who in 1919 was a 30-year-old veteran with ambitions of artistry, had stuck to his art, the world would have been spared ineffable horror. When, in director Menno Meyjes' debut feature, Hitler takes pity on feathered creatures kept in cages, declaring: "It's inhuman what they do to those birds," it is impossible not to think of his impending atrocities against millions of cornered human beings. When Max admits: "You're an awfully hard man to like, Hitler," we want to shriek at the screen: "You don't know the half of it, Max."

Until he lost an arm in combat at Ypres, Max Rothman was a painter. Now he is an impresario of innovative painters, an energetic marketer of the avant-garde. When Hitler, a teetotaling traditionalist, wanders into Rothman's foundry gallery, he scorns as "filth" its audacious inventory of works by artists such as Max Ernst and George Grosz. A composite of several actual figures, Max is far more colorful than drab, dour Adolf. "He's a nothing," says a right-wing military officer who recruits the miserable corporal to speak for his burgeoning nationalist movement. "Perhaps that's his secret." The secret of Meyjes' film is that we know that out of a nothing will come something monstrous. Max traces Hitler's transformation from starving artist to raving demagogue.

The central figure in this story, though, is not German history but Max, a wealthy young Jew with a wife, two children, and a mistress. John Cusack's Max is a sybaritic aesthete with enough empathy to try to befriend Hitler, a solitary man down on his luck and himself. Noah Taylor's Adolf detests Jews and lacks any joie de vivre, yet Max encourages his work and provides him financial support. He even tries, unsuccessfully, to fix abstemious Adolf up with a woman. Marketing it as the authentic expression of men in the trenches, Max sells a Hitler canvas to an American dentist named Levy. While Max is attempting to coax Adolf into channeling his anger creatively, Captain Mayr (Thomsen) is molding him into an anti-Semitic militarist whose art is politics. "If you were to put the same amount of energy into your art as into your speaking," Max tells Adolf, who blossoms as the public voice of nationalist resentments, "you would have something going." Our familiarity with the choice Adolf makes turns Max into a prequel to The Pianist, Schindler's List, and Saving Private Ryan.

No one is saving Max Rothman. Meyjes contrives a finale for the assimilated German Jew that buckles under the weight of historical irony. "There's no future in the future," proclaims Max, and we know, we know. •

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