Max (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Max is the much discussed film about Hitler's youth in Munich as an aspiring painter, and his relationship with a fictional Jewish art dealer named Max Rothman.

Despite what you have read, Max is not a very good movie. It is a very intelligent discussion of art and politics, performed by excellent actors, but it still isn't much of a movie. It is slow, talky, and lifeless. Visually, it looks like the work of someone who has never directed before, which it is. If you close your eyes, it sounds like the rehearsal for a two person play off-off-Broadway, the type of show performed for audiences of intelligentsia numbering a dozen or less. In this case, the two characters spend most of their time talking about art theory. I had to struggle for wakefulness, even though I'm interested in the art theories of the period after WW1, in which modernism (represented by Max) struggled to attain a sturdy foothold in the art world, while traditionalists (represented by Hitler) rejected and condemned the new trend toward abstraction.

Although it is not without strengths, the film fails my basic litmus test of historical biopics, which is this: if you change the main character's name to Dieter Distelfink, if you thought it was about fictional characters, would you still want to watch it? The answer is obviously "no". The main character holds our attention only because we know what his life will become after the period portrayed in the film.

The film does have a good ending.


Hitler (Noah Taylor) is convinced by Max, his Jewish art dealer (John Cusack), that he must choose between art and politics. If he wants to be an artist, he must take all of the energy and rage that he puts into his speeches and channel them into his art, giving it a personal voice. Max promises Hitler a one-man show if he is willing to commit exclusively to art. Max sees this as a weighted strategy on his part. He is doing more than supporting a young artist. He knows what Hitler's speeches are like, and wants to do his part to silence them.

The two men arrange to meet in a cafe that night to discuss Hitler's decision.

Hitler decides in favor of art, but before his meeting with Max, he has a speech to make at a National Socialist rally. He agrees to give the speech as usual, but tells the party organizers that it will be his last speech, because he will be a full-time artist. He does such a good job on his speech that he whips the drunken army crowd into a frenzy of hatred, after which they take to the streets and start beating up Jews. Their victims include Max, who is on his way to the meeting with Hitler.

Hitler makes it to the cafe, lays out his paintings, and is ready to begin a new life away from politics. When the art dealer fails to show up on time, Hitler becomes agitated. By the time the cafe reaches closing time, Hitler is enraged and storms out, his hopes for a career in art dashed because he had been stood up and betrayed by a Jew.

The movie ends there. We all know that he will turn to politics full time, with horrible consequences for the world.


The film includes some important history lessons which can't really be learned from a book. In just a decade and a half after this story took place, Hitler would be chancellor of Germany, but in 1918 he was a corporal in a defeated army, living in a barracks, in poverty, his heart filling with outrage over his fate and that of his country. How did such an unlikable nobody come to the country's leadership? The film gives a plausible historical context.

He was surrounded by millions of others who felt what he felt, the shame and humiliation of having fought for four years, only to have their country chopped into bits and castrated by the Treaty of Versailles. The outraged Germans were determined to get back Silesia, Alsace-Lorraine, the Danzig corridor, and the Sudetenland, all areas taken from them and distributed among other European countries. Remember that large chunks of their mighty country were handed to countries they considered not only enemies, but insignificant enemies. In order to understand how they felt, imagine how the United States would feel if a large chunk of its land, including the people now living there, were mandated by the United Nations as a home land for al-Qaida. Such an action would leave Americans flabbergasted, and would provoke a depth of outrage that would engender various violent anti-Arab hate groups. If a man was cunning enough to organize these groups effectively, he could even attain national prominence. That is the same feeling the Germans felt after Versailles. Hitler would give that outrage a voice, a sense of wounded German pride which even Max, the rich Jewish art dealer, would have agreed with.

They also needed somebody to hate. Yes, they were bitter at the conquerors who had forced them to sign the treaty, but they needed something more tangible. In the theoretical example above, Americans would hate the United Nations, but would focus their hatred on the Arabs. Hitler needed a tangible focus. He come up with a scapegoat which Max would not have approved at all.



How did he find his scapegoat? He looked around the art world which he was trying to enter. Hitler came back from the war a defeated man with no money or friends or family. Peace was no better than the war he had just left. On the other hand, Max came back from the war to the bosom of his rich and loving family and the pleasures of café society. Was this fair? Not in Hitler's eyes, of course. And who was to blame for this inequality? Hitler blamed the "parasites" who had everything he lacked, the Jews who seemed to make it through the war with everything intact. As Hitler saw it, Germany's enemies had managed to create a post-war situation in which loyal Christian Germans had to beg for food from the rich Jews who strolled the boulevards in their finery. Hitler's theories resonated through a Germany which was already suffused with the anti-Semitism that had plagued much of Europe for a century.

Is this how it really happened? Did Hitler's encounter with the art world really shape his future in politics?

In one sense the answer is, "No. It is a fictional story."

But is certainly how it could have happened, and that is the point.

Both Cusack and Taylor are excellent and credible in this film. The minor characters are undeveloped and have nothing to do, but Leelee Sobieski and Molly Parker are lovely and sexy as Cusack's mistress and wife, respectively.

not yet available on home media

The Critics Vote

  • Reviews were all over the board. I saw every score from 1.5/5 to 4/4.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. Voting results: IMDb voters score it 5.8/10
  • Production budget: $11 million.

Miscellaneous ...

  • Two links for people curious about what Hitler's paintings were really like (1, 2) . There are even some for sale at the second link.

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, C. People seemed surprised that a movie about Hitler's youth could be so non-controversial. I was more surprised that a film about Hitler could be so dull. It is an intelligent, well-acted, examination of the historical conditions which might have created the Hitler we are familiar with. Its intelligence is not necessarily enough to make it worth your time investment, unless you are in the small minority which really wants to grapple with the ideas. I am in that minority, but could barely stay awake.

Return to the Movie House home page