Was Hitler human?

John Cusack talks about his new movie, "Max," which is sparking a firestorm even before its opening.

By David Talbot

Published September 9, 2002 9:05PM (EDT)

Was Hitler human? And if so, how did he become a monster? These are among the questions raised by a provocative new movie that, against all odds, is premiering Monday at the Toronto Film Festival. The film project, which became the obsession of three men -- director/writer Menno Meyjes, actor John Cusack and producer Andras Hamori -- scared off movie financiers throughout the Western world. Despite having one of the most popular actors of his generation as its star and a well-connected director and producer (the Dutch-born Meyjes wrote the screenplays for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "The Color Purple" for Steven Spielberg and the Hungarian-born Hamori produced "Sunshine" and "The Sweet Hereafter"), the film deeply unnerved prospective investors from the U.S. to Canada to Germany and France.

"Everyone turned us down for financing, especially the Europeans," recalls Hamori. "Some investors pretended to be somebody else, or that they were not in their office, so they wouldn't have to meet with us. We met with one who started the meeting by saying, 'This movie should not be made.' Nobody wanted to touch the subject."

The film, "Max," breaks with cinematic precedent by depicting the young Hitler as an emotionally poisoned man, but nonetheless human, and even sympathetic in his longing for recognition as a struggling and impoverished artist in the postwar Munich of 1918. While scores of biographies and history books have presented fully dimensional portraits of Hitler, no major movie until now has offered anything more than a cartoon picture of the 20th century's apogee of evil: we have seen him on the screen only as a ranting and wild-eyed hysteric.

"Max" traces the transformation of Hitler (played by Australian actor Noah Taylor) from a scruffy war veteran and frustrated painter to a rising propagandist for German nationalism and anti-Semitism. We see the future leader of the Third Reich through the eyes of another scarred survivor of World War I, Max Rothman (Cusack), a prosperous Jewish dealer in avant-garde art who believes that only brutally honest art can restore sanity to the world. Rothman is repelled by Hitler's political ideas, but enters into an odd friendship with the bitter young corporal, out of a kinship born of the First World War trenches and a desire to save his comrade through the healing power of art. We know it will end tragically, but "Max" pulls along the viewer by asking the haunting question, "What if?" -- and by showing us that evil does not simply crawl from the shadows, but emerges through circumstances and choices.

After 18 months of Herculean struggle, producer Hamori and his colleagues were able to scratch together the $10 million in financing, when the London-based Pathé International finally invested the first chunk -- thanks in part to the unwavering commitment of Cusack, who took no salary for his work on the film. After its debut this week in Toronto, "Max" will open Dec. 27 in New York and Los Angeles and then nationwide in February.

Even before it has been seen, the film has set off an angry reaction among people who are offended by the very idea of a movie presenting a figure of such profound evil in human terms. To do so, they charge, renders the monstrous sympathetic and reduces the enormity of his crimes. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd branded "Max" a cynical exploitation, and the Jewish Defense League is campaigning to block Lions Gate, the film's U.S. distributor, from releasing it. On the group's Web site, JDL official Brett Stone declares that "not only is the film in bad taste, it is also a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community. There is no moral justification for making such a movie. To glorify or humanize Hitler makes a mockery of the 12 million -- 6 million of them Jewish - victims of Hitler's tyranny ... This is not art! This is obscenity!"

Cusack -- the product of a passionately liberal Irish Catholic family (the Berrigan brothers were visitors to his Chicago home when he was growing up, and, like them, his mother still gets arrested for her anti-militarism and pro-human rights protests) -- is astonished that "such a humanist and progressive movie" is eliciting such a heated response. "And I love that this response is coming from people who have not seen one frame of the film," he observes.

On the eve of "Max's" Toronto premiere, Cusack, Meyjes and Hamori sat down with Salon in a nondescript Italian restaurant in Santa Monica to defend the film against its preemptive critics. They were later joined over the phone from Washington, D.C., by the film's associate producer, Sidney Blumenthal, the journalist and former Clinton White House official who helped brainstorm the project with his old friend Meyjes while Blumenthal was weathering the storm of the Clinton impeachment wars.

Cusack: I actually called Maureen Dowd after she took a swipe at the movie and I asked her how she could do that without even seeing it. And she said, "Oh, I like your work" -- she was very complimentary and so on. But I thought it was a tad lazy on her part to go after a movie she'd never seen. Her attitude was that even a serious, adult examination of this subject had to be exploitative, simply because of the subject matter.

Even talking to my father, who's a writer and a very smart, progressive, open-minded guy, he told me, "I don't know, it disturbs me -- I don't want to think of Hitler as a human." Because what the film asks of you is very painful. It's not a truth you want to face.

To those who say, "How dare you give Hitler a set of human characteristics?" -- I say, "How dare we not?" It's easy to portray him as a monster, it's harder and more disturbing to show his humanity and how it became poisoned.

Hamori: We shot the film in Budapest, where I'm from. But while we were working there, I couldn't tell my own mother what I was working on. Because she lived through it all. We're Jewish, and when she was 18, she was taken away by the Germans to a collection camp at a brick factory outside Budapest. But my grandmother was a genius. Before the train arrived to take her to Auschwitz, she showed up at the factory and convinced the young Hungarian soldier standing guard that her daughter should not spend the night there because there were men in there, too. She told him, "She's a virgin, she's not going to stay here overnight with these men -- so let me take her and I'll bring her back tomorrow." The guard said OK, and she took her away and they locked themselves up in a neighbor's apartment.

So I grew up in a country and a family where Hitler's name was never even mentioned --half my family was taken away during the war. My grandmother would never let me put a human face on a monster. But what Menno does in these two hours of film is explain to me that human dimension I never knew existed.

I heard that, early on, Spielberg was involved in the film. Why did he pull out?

Meyjes: I had the project with his company. I told them the idea for the movie and they got very excited. Then I wrote the script, and suddenly there was quite clearly a hesitation on their part. I know Steven, so I forced the issue. And he said, "The script is great, don't compromise on anything. But as the head of the Shoah Foundation, I just can't do it. I can't tell these survivors that I'm doing the movie. But you should go ahead on your own and do it."

I'm extremely sympathetic to people's outrage over the film. I completely understand this atavistic feeling that they have about evil like that embodied by Hitler. But I'm afraid that ultimately he was a homo sapiens, born of woman, and that he did make the choice to become a monster. So I understand why we get this reaction -- but in the end, it's simply not helpful. The idea that evil people have to be presented as not human, but as devils born from a sulfur fire -- it's absurd. Hannah Arendt was attacked for saying something similar, for observing the banality of evil. In her conversations with Eichmann, he told her, "You don't understand, it was all about logistics, I just did the logistical part, I didn't really have a point of view on it." And that's what makes the whole thing terrifyingly plausible.

This question, about the human dimension of evil, resonates today, as we think about Osama bin Laden and the perpetrators of 9/11. President Bush has depicted bin Laden in simplistic terms, as a totem of darkness. "Max" seems to be challenging that black and white view of evil.

Cusack: It's not healthy to treat homo sapiens as not human. I guess in the short run, it's a great way to rally the troops, but beyond that it doesn't get you very far. I'm much more interested in reading people like Thomas Friedman on the roots of Mideast hatred than I am in making Osama blacker than he is and more insane. Yes, he's evil and insane, but ...

Meyjes: The interesting thing about bin Laden is that so many people listen to him.

Cusack: Yes, maybe we should try to figure that out.

Blumenthal: There is a tendency among some conservatives to talk about figures like Hitler and bin Laden as beyond human understanding, as a dark force that just sprang full-born into the world. "Max" shows that evil has nuances -- it doesn't just emerge in its full nightmarish quality instantly, it develops day by day, it has its own evolution. That makes it more horrific. Because if evil were something absolute and distinct, it could be removed from human experience. But it's not, which means we must come to terms with how it arises.

It's frightening to grapple with evil this way. It was frightening to the people of Germany at the time. Germany was then seen as the most civilized nation in Europe. Indeed, if pundits at the turn of the century had been compelled to predict the country that would succumb to violent anti-Semitism, they would have chosen France, the country of the Dreyfus affair.

No country is immune to the evolution of evil and evil political leaders, even the U.S. The more you can learn about the past, the better off you are.

Meyjes: I think that Hitler was a new kind of man, who came from a little mountain village to the big city and picked up all these hatreds, and had this insane desire to be famous. And he understood fame in a very modern way, which very few people did in those days. Who was famous in those days? Hindenburg, generals were famous, politicians. I mean, Charlie Chaplin had barely been invented. But those pressures are very strong to this day -- people fear anonymity. He needed that kind of mass recognition in order to know himself.

So he was the first modern man in that sense?

Meyjes: Absolutely.

Blumenthal: Hitler was such a nullity as a human being, a man filled with raw feelings of disgust and self-loathing. His genius, which was an evil one, was to have the capacity to articulate that in a way that appealed to those feelings in others, which in postwar Germany turned out to be a mass audience.

The film says that Hitler was a failure as an artist, but he succeeded in turning politics into art.

Cusack: Yes, he ended up becoming a black artist, someone whose art was to set the world on fire.

Meyjes: Sid had me read Modris Eksteins' "The Rites of Spring," about how modernism came out of World War I. At the same time I was reading the Futurist Manifesto, which at the time was so powerful and inspiring. And then, my God, 20 years later Mussolini turns out to be the ultimate futurist! The great overarching idea about society can lead you without realizing it to perdition.

Cusack: The machine as poetry.

Meyjes: Yes, there was a direct connection between the Futurists and the blitzkrieg -- it was all about turning yourself into a piston.

You definitely see Hitler emerging as a great stage performer in "Max."

Meyjes: Yes, he was the world's first performance artist. Walter Benjamin said when you fuse aesthetics with politics, you get fascism. What Hitler did with the Third Reich was an art movement. It was unique in history. I mean can you imagine Tony Blair redesigning England? "All right, then, no more red jackets, no more 'God Save the Queen,' we're going to redesign everything, from our flag to our uniforms to our architecture." There are four pages on Dada in "Mein Kampf." When he used to talk to Stalin on the phone, it would take hours because of the antiquated phone system and the translations, and Hitler would kill time by making these secret Cubist doodlings, which of course he never would want anyone to see, because Cubism was decadent modernism. I read a quote from Albert Speer in Ron Rosenbaum's book ("Explaining Hitler"): "What you must understand is that Hitler always thought of himself as an artist first."

And yet he was such a terrible artist, as the movie points out. The portfolio he shows to Max is filled with nothing but kitsch.

Cusack: Hitler and the Modernists were both talking about the future. In the film, Max encourages Hitler to dig deeper with his painting, to understand the slaughterhouse they've both been through, to confront the mania that drove them and their country into the trenches -- but Hitler is incapable of it. Max is the ultimate rational man -- he sees Hitler delivering these poisonous speeches, he knows he's anti-Semitic. But he tries to get him to put his passion into his art instead. Hitler sees Max making money from modern art and he wants to know, what is this stuff, why is it selling, what's the trick? And Max tells him, hey, you were in the trenches, you saw the horror of the new age -- that's where surrealism was born, watching your fellow man wearing hideous gas masks. But Hitler just can't go that deep.

Meyjes: Every time he tries to paint he fails, because he can't penetrate the painting. There is a large sexual component to his artistic failure. You know, there's this great book called "Diary of a Man in Despair" by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, in which he says, if only we had bought Hitler the biggest art gallery in Berlin and proclaimed him the greatest artist of the century, look what we could have prevented.

"Max" is something of a risk for you, John -- it's no "America's Sweethearts."

Cusack: Actually, they're very similar (laughs). I didn't see "Max" as a risk at all, I saw it as an honor. After reading the script and meeting with Menno, I immediately decided this was going to be my next movie. I told my agent, "I don't care about the money, this is next." Because I once asked Nick Nolte, who is a friend of mine, how he got this movie made, "North Dallas Forty," which is a favorite of mine. And he said the only way is to announce, "This is my next movie," and just not do anything else until it becomes true. He waited nine months until the financing finally came together and he made it happen. That's what we did on "Max" -- the three of us kind of locked ourselves in a prison, where we knew we were either going to get this film made or we were going to kill each other.

This is your most explicitly political film -- did you worry about alienating your audience?

Cusack: I don't see it as a political movie, it's spiritual. I was interested in the character of Max, how complex and wounded he was, and his ideals. I saw it as this fascinating debate between this kind of white magician and black magician, about art and politics and the spiritual function of art. Yes, of course it's political, but not in the sense of having an agenda. I just wanted to deal with these ideas about history and art in a way that hadn't been done before. That's why I immersed myself in films and books about the Third Reich and its pageantry, which I saw as a kind of black art, while I was preparing for the role.

Do you feel in any way that you're part of a progressive movement in Hollywood, trying to push the culture forward?

Cusack: No. Whatever it is, it's very individual, very personal.

Meyjes: But obviously your work has been informed by very progressive ideas.

Cusack: Yes, I think so. I think there are a number of individuals in Hollywood who are trying to make things happen in their own ways. And I do think that film is an incredibly powerful medium, when it comes to moving people. You can probably change more hearts and minds with one good film than with thousands of e-mail pamphlets or whatever. So I'm very conscious of the power of this thing -- not that you have to be pushing an agenda. You can just be an artist exploring various questions. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't feel like I'm a spokesman for any group or movement.

Even though there's a John Cusack for President movement? Have you encouraged that?

Cusack: No. Not at all.

Do you have any concerns about going out in public and promoting "Max," given the controversy that has already begun to swirl around it?

Cusack: No, because I have total belief in the film and what it's about. I remember driving around one day in Chicago, I don't remember how old I was at the time, when Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" had just opened at the Biograph Theater. And I saw all these protesters out on the streets, and the debate over the movie was all over the papers, all these people wrestling with the issues raised by the movie. And I remember just being in awe of what Scorsese did. I loved the film, I thought it was one of his best. But I was also invigorated by the debate and the controversy.

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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