Cusack's thoughts on `Max'


March 14, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

John Cusack understands that Max is not going to sit well with some people. The movie, in which Cusack plays a Jewish art dealer who befriends a struggling artist named Adolf Hitler, speculates on what might have happened had the future fuhrer been more successful with his brushes than his rhetoric. It also examines the line between performance and politics, and speculates that Hitler might have been among the first to exploit the reality that there's not much of a line at all.

Max also humanizes Hitler (played mesmerizingly in the film by Noah Taylor) in a way few movies have dared, portraying him not simply as a murderous madman, but as someone with conflicted ideas and conflicting emotions, as much a product of his times as of his delusions.

Portraying Hitler as anything other than a monster, Cusack acknowledges, is something of a risk.

"I sympathize with people who find it uncomfortable," the actor says over the phone from Louisiana, where he's wrapping up work on the screen adaptation of John Grisham's The Runaway Jury. "But I don't think it's helpful to look at [the period] in an artificial way. I think it's important that you look at it in a complex way, to see what he did and stop it from happening again. That's the intention."

In the movie, Hitler is portrayed as a man constantly looking to blame his shortcomings on others; thus, his hatred of the Jews, which he insists is not a prejudice on his part, but simply an acknowledgment of the facts (an argument bigots have been making for centuries). Of course, that philosophy becomes problematic when his biggest benefactor turns out to be a Jew. But as Hitler slowly realizes his talent as a painter is not going to sustain him, he begins to take comfort in other types of expression. Speaking at National Socialist rallies, in front of large crowds, he relishes his newfound ability to enthrall people through the power of his voice.

"He did not shy away from" a career as a painter, Cusack says. "He turned away and ran. He found that he did not have the command [over his art] that he found in other areas."

What's more, Hitler "realizes something even more important: What he says isn't nearly as important as how he says it. The same tortured emotions he had been trying to put on canvas, he can now convey through the timbre of his voice. Demagoguery and propaganda prove quite the rush.

"It's all theater," says Cusack, who appreciated the themes writer-director Menno Mayjes was exploring in Max, the mingling of politics and theater that Hitler would master and eventually use to such awful purpose in his Third Reich. "We all know these things and take them for granted, say `that's just the way it is,' but if you really follow the extension of the idea of politics being all aesthetics, it can be pretty dangerous. Particularly when you get involved in issues of hate and war.

"That was," Cusack suggests, "probably Hitler's only original idea." And one that has far outlasted the Third Reich.

Coming soon

What's happening on various cinematic fronts over the next week:

At The Charles, it's Stanley Kubrick's The Killing as the latest entry in the Saturday revival series. The 1956 film stars Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray and Vince Edwards in the story of an ex-con who recruits a group of hard-luck losers for what promises to be a literal, as well as figurative, killing. Of course, things go wrong. Showtime is noon, admission is $5. Information: 410-727-FILM or on the Web at

The Pratt Library's continuing film series devoted to women's history presents two documentaries on that most American of young girl's toys, the Barbie doll: Susan Stern's Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour and I, Doll, a 1996 look at the Barbie phenomenon. Showtime is 2 p.m. in the Wheeler Auditorium of the Pratt's Central Library, 400 Cathedral St. Information:

The Johns Hopkins' Medical Systems' festival of bad cinema, the one that last month brought Madonna's Swept Away to town for its Baltimore premiere, concludes with Junior High School, a 1981 film featuring a pre-American Idol Paula Abdul in what some would consider a career low (not that Idol represents a comeback). Series organizer Gabe Wardell also promises a second feature, a disco-era film so bad that he dare not speak its name. Showtime is 7:15 p.m. Thursday at the Preclinical Teaching Building, Wolfe and Monument streets. Information: 410-955-3363.

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