When Art and Politics Don't Mix

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Review of 'Max', director Menno Meyers

Max' is set in Munich after the defeat of Germany in the First World War. One of the two main protagonists is Max Rothman (John Cusack), a Jewish artist who lost an arm in the war. Now he runs an art gallery and shows the new art that exploded in Germany as a result of the turmoil of defeat. He meets another veteran who, unlike him, is penniless. He too has an interest in art - and reactionary politics. It is struggling artist Adolf Hitler. The premise for the film is that Hitler chose politics over art because he couldn't get a break in the latter, declaring that 'politics is the new art'.

This period did see the emergence of many great painters like George Grotz and Max Beckman, whose work was inspired by their war experience painted onto the ruptured landscape that was post-war Germany. Much of their work is the backdrop to the film. It starts off well enough. Many of the soldiers who came back from the war returned to find their countries shattered by events. In Britain there was mass unemployment and in 1919 a massive strike wave. Things were far worse for the Germans. The effects of the Allied blockade meant that thousands were still starving to death. The whole country was in chaos and on the verge of revolution. Certain elements within the army formed the Freikorps in reaction to the Treaty of Versailles and the threat of a workers' uprising. They went from town to town crushing the rebellions and it is to these reactionaries that Hitler aligns himself.

The problem is that 'Max' gets less convincing as it goes on. As the relationship between Max and Hitler develops the dynamic between them becomes unconvincing. Hitler comes across as a rude man of limited talent but possessing a deep streak of self-pity. Max's friendship with him comes from their shared experience in the trenches and his own guilt that he is from a very middle-class background and has returned home to comfort. His artistic interest in Hitler is really only sparked when he sees some of the F├╝hrer's drawings of what were to become Nazi icons - SS uniforms and swastikas mainly. Yet as Hitler rants about Jews Max, who is completely aware of what Hitler is saying, can carry on their friendship as if it was a matter of which football team you support. 'Max' is very stylish and the acting is good, but the plot backs the film into an ever more ludicrous ending.