September 4, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Max

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Max

Today's movie: Max, 2002 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because as regular readers know, it deals with one of my favorite pet subjects -- the complicated rise of Nazism in early-20th-century Germany, that is -- taking a fictionalized look at Adolph Hitler's youth as a frustrated art student, then taking educated guesses on how the things going on around him in those years might have led to his eventual career in politics. Because it was produced by and stars John Cusack (playing a cynical one-armed Jewish gallery owner, one of the only people in the entire Munich art scene who can even stand to be around the blustery Hitler, because of his tolerance in general for crazy, ranting Modernist artists); and it's hard to go wrong with a film that stars and is produced by John Cusack.

The reality: Surprisingly great, but only if you're in the right frame of mind. In fact, I ended up in a big debate with a friend of mine regarding this movie earlier this week, over at my Facebook account; he found the whole thing ham-fisted and overacted, while I found it surprisingly intelligent and nuanced. And I guess a big part of that is that I went into it from a background of having studied quite a bit of 20th-century art history back in school myself; and I have to admit, I really loved the way this film delves into the nihilistic Early Modernist movement as it specifically manifested itself in Germany (think Dadaism, think Max Ernst, who's actually a minor character in the film), using all these things as a way of not only explaining the Weimer Era there in a surprisingly sophisticated way, but also why so many average German citizens despised the Weimer Era, and why it was so easy for Hitler to find a following in the first place back then with his "back to tradition" hate speeches (think McCain's "Country First" jingoism during the 2008 election). The fact is that the rise of fascism in Germany between the wars was not a simple situation whatsoever, no matter what revisionist historians want you to believe, and that a big part of it was fueled precisely by squabbling, fatalistic radical liberals being in charge of both the government and the arts during the Weimar years, a situation which much like our Obamian Age created a wall for hate-filled conservatives to push against; I was impressed that this movie takes all of these things into account, instead of presenting the usual "artists good! hillbillies bad!" stereotype that so many projects concerning the rise of Nazism do. But if you're not coming into this movie from such a background yourself, I could easily see why you might find it just simply too over-the-top for your tastes...and of course, it doesn't help when the screenplay occasionally features lines like, "You're a hard man to like, Mr. Hitler."

Strangest piece of trivia: As part of securing financing for this film, Cusack agreed to do the movie for free. Also, Steven Spielberg seriously considered financing this production (writer/director Menno Meyjes also penned the screenplays for Spielberg's The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade); but at the end, he was just too afraid of offending Holocaust victims.

Worth your time? Yes, but only if you like nuanced, historically informed character dramas

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:20 PM, September 4, 2009. Filed under: