When producer Andras Hamori read the script MAX, his initial reaction he admits was "Let's not make this movie. " He confesses that although he was impressed with the script, he was scared to go where Menno Meyjes' had gone, especially since he hails from a Hungarian family that was persecuted by the Nazis. "The very word Hitler was taboo in my family," he explains. "It was mentioned in the same breath as Antichrist - as if he was this pure, otherworldly evil that happened to humanity but now we didn't have to worry about him anymore. Not only did I feel Hitler was a taboo but I felt he also had become a cinematic cliché - the stereotype with the mustache, the hair-do, the brown uniform, the screaming on stage, and I wondered how even this fantastically written script could get past that. Politically and emotionally I couldn't imagine making this movie. "
And yet, MAX continued to whirl in the back of Hamori's mind, and he ultimately agreed to meet Meyjes - for the purpose of explaining to him why he couldn't make the movie. "Menno showed up, this tall, crazy Dutchman with a huge album - an entire storyboard almost like a comic book of the movie - and I thought 'Oh no. ' But then he started showing me these wonderful, starkly drawn, moody scenes and we started talking about ideas and philosophies and the hours just evaporated. By the time I got up to go I was convinced the movie had to made," he says.
Hamori began to face his own fears of breaking the Hitler taboo. He says: "I began to see that in order to understand the monster of Hitler you have to accept that he had a human face - you have to see where he came from, this nobody from Austria, this man who failed at art, and how he turned himself into the most feared man of the 20th century, and perhaps all of history. Even though I still felt it was a risky idea to examine, I now saw that it was even more risky not to. "
Hamori came to access the film's difficult themes through his fascination with the character of Max and his humorous, energetic take on life, love and art. "I found his character really, really funny," says Hamori. "He is always pushing the boundaries. And this is a very important part of the film because it is a contrast with Hitler and the tragedy that surrounds him. Hitler's whole life is missing humor and light - he's all about desperation, his inner life is brittle and dry. Meanwhile, Max, who has lost his arm in the war and could be bitter, instead can still see the hilarity in the world. I think Menno creates an enchanting portrait of the intelligent lightness of families in MAX - in the conversations and jokes and jovial bickering that surrounds the Rothmans - and then into this circle comes Hitler, which is very powerful. "
Hamori and Meyjes had many conversations about who might play Max, but they remained uninspired until, at one script conference in Europe, they peered through the glass table where they were seated and spied a photograph of John Cusack on the cover of Details Magazine looking up at them. "Just as if we were in a bad movie, we both paused, gasped, turned to each other and said 'this is Max Rothman,'" recalls Hamori. "By some total miracle, when John read the script he become intrigued by the script and fought for it. He became totally obsessed with MAX. "
When Cusack read MAX he was immediately struck by this hypnotic tale about the rise and fall of a man and the modern age. Had Menno Meyjes really managed to write a funny, moving, inspired screenplay about a one-armed Jewish gallery owner in love with art who takes under his wing an impoverished would-be painter named Adolf Hitler? As far as Cusack could tell, Meyjes had - and he had somehow turned Max's unusual tale into a story brimming with romance, tragedy, atmosphere and ideas, a story that stood at the crossroads where art, politics and love collide.
Cusack felt this was the best screenplay he had encountered since Charlie Kaufman's critically acclaimed "Being John Malkovich" and he couldn't resist. "MAX was one of those rare scripts that just leaps off the page," he says. "I felt it was a completely original and authentic new voice, and I thought that the fusion of art, politics and the black arts of Hitler that MAX is all about was a story that had never really been told and that urgently needed to be told," he says. "It is also set in such a vital and exciting period of time, when people had come back from war and were really reassessing what they believed in and why. It's always been one of my favorite periods in art. "
In addition to its rare journey into the time when modern art was exploding, Cusack was drawn to MAX's story of the unlikely but revealing relationship between this Jewish gallery owner and the fledgling young artist known as Hitler. "What they share in common is having participated on the front lines and having survived the war. I think Hitler really wanted to understand modern art but was such a repressed man, and so caught up in this horrifying ideology of Teutonic nationalism, that everything he did was without emotion, without feeling. I think Max probably sees him as emblematic of everything that's wrong with Germany after the war, but in some sense he feels an obligation to pull this guy up into the light, to get him to express himself on a deeper level. "
An affinity for Max's passionate idealism drew Cusack even more strongly to the role. "Max lived in a fertile time for self-examination, a very vital time when change was in the air," he says. "Max is the kind of guy who really believes that a piece of art is going to save the world and obviously that's a pre-irony type of position, and yet I often wonder if the world is a lesser place because more people don't feel that way today. " Cusack's transformation into Max also extended to the physical, as he explored living in the body of an amputee, keeping one arm pinned behind his back throughout filming. "Using only one arm does change your body," he notes. "You develop a sort of a lean and one hip compensates by going out to the right. I think with Max, it also becomes part of his identity, this sort of lack that he can never quite get over. He's not really a hero or an angel - he's full of flaws like everyone. "
Says Meyjes of the choice of Cusack: "When John left home to begin the shoot he called me and said 'I'm getting on the plane and I'm bringing everything I've got' and that's exactly what he did. He offered us the entire spectrum of his genius. He was intelligent and tireless and very funny, but he also came to the project with a rare depth of knowledge about modern art. You can't say the lines that come out of Max's mouth unless you have a real and deep understanding of art and history, which John does. There's also a kind of fatalistic charm to John - a very sort of European quality to me - a cosmopolitan and sophisticated side that brings Max Rothman fully to life. "
The filmmakers' search for Hitler was more fraught with complications. "From the beginning we knew we could get an important actor to play Hitler, because it is such an enormous role," says Hamori. "But we agreed on one principal rule: we needed someone whom the audience would not find seductive the way they might with a leading man. When Noah Taylor came to see us, at the suggestion of our wonderful casting director Nina Gold, he was wearing a painted-on mustache, just like the cliché we wanted to avoid. But there was something in his eyes, something really appalling and mesmerizing about him. " Adds Meyjes: "What Noah brings to the role is a sense of someone who seems harmless but is slowly taken over by this demonic obsession. His commitment to the part was such that after we shot the soup-kitchen scene he told me that in preparation, he hadn't eaten in 24 hours and was not wearing any underwear on a day that was well below zero. "
For Noah Taylor, the role was a harrowing but exciting challenge. "I was quite interested in this portrait of Hitler because I think it's way too convenient to view Hitler as a satanic figure who just appeared for no reason. People want to say 'that will never happen again' but I think that in any given time there is always a potential Hitler," he says. "Hitler was a man with a talent for seizing on discontent but when he first arrived in Germany, he was looking for a band-wagon to jump on and it could just as easily have been avant-garde art as it was politics. "
He continues: "MAX is a particularly original view of Hitler because it's not your standard biopic or historical drama - it's more about a relationship between two people, one of whom just happens to be Hitler. And what makes him truly frightening in this is not that he's from another world or the Devil or anything, it's that he's entirely human. You see him as one of many people dispossessed and left adrift at the end of the War. And at the same time there can be no excuses or sympathy for the man. Although in any life there can befall misfortunes that others can relate to, it is clear that people make their own choices about whether to behave well or badly. "
The more Taylor read about the historical Hitler, the more haunting the role became. "One of the only things that historians seem to agree upon about Hitler is that he was an utterly charmless man. Even people who faithfully served him in the Nazi party later, after the War, said he was this horrible little man with this weird scratchy voice and vile temper," he observes. "I like to work from visual information, and there's one photo of Hitler that spoke more to me about him than anything else - it was taken when he was eight years old and here's this intensely angry, incredibly serious little boy with his arms crossed and that to me was the core of him. But I did realize that, as an actor, if there was any role that would make your wife want to leave you and that sort of thing, this was the one. So I was quite careful to go out of my way to be kinder and more pleasant to people off set!"
Taylor also wanted to capture another side of Hitler - the prescient 20th century master manipulator of self-image. "I wanted to underscore the idea that Hitler became one of the first people to really use, in a horrific way, the cult of celebrity- he became a true master of propaganda, a man who took complete control of his own image, becoming someone almost unrecognizable to those who had known him when he was living on the streets," Taylor notes.
Taylor's vision of Hitler as an infuriated outcast who seeks revenge on behalf of all the humiliated and downtrodden of Germany also informed the way he interacts with John Cusack as Max. "I think that to Hitler, Max is everything he'll never be - handsome, successful, talented, popular, desired by women. In a way, the film is almost a revenge story because Hitler's internal feeling at this social world is sort of 'I'm going to get you all' which he takes to a massive level. I think this worked very well with John and me because we're two such different people. It wouldn't work to have two people on the same wavelength, because the relationship needed an almost magnetic kind of energy, a push and pull, and we had that. "
Max's other relationships include two poignant yet divergent romances: one with his ballerina wife Nina, the other with his alluring artist mistress, Liselore. Playing Nina is Molly Parker, who calls the character "very much a woman of her time, coming into a new modernist consciousness along with her husband. " She continues: "Nina and Max are at a turning point in their relationship. He probably came back from the war, where he lost his arm, in a great deal of pain and addicted to morphine. But now he's getting his life back and the question is: can their relationship survive? "
For Parker, the real appeal of MAX was its timeless investigation into the volatile territory where love, art and politics meet up. "I never felt like we were making a period film," she says, "because Menno's focus is more on the ideas and emotions, which are no different today than they were in 1918. It's a film about questions rather than answers and the big questions are: can art change people, and also, what happens when that desire to change the world intersects with another kind of desire for power and unbridled ambition?"
Leelee Sobieski was attracted to the role of Liselore in part because her father is a painter, and she herself loves to work with canvases. "Whenever there's a role that involves painting, I get very excited," she says. " But I also loved this script. It feels so contemporary, like it could be happening today. There's a sense of reality to it, but also at the same time of surreal fantasy. It's very original: eerie and sensual and scary and exciting at the same time. " Sobieski was also fascinated by Liselore's mercurial nature. "She's someone who's very interested in living in the now, in not necessarily thinking about consequences, but just having an exciting love affair as part of her exploration of life," she says. "And yet she also has this heart that gets hurt. She wouldn't be interested in Max probably if he wasn't married with children, but she also is heartbroken that he can't commit to her 100 percent. "
She continues: "But Liselore is also the only character who really despises Hitler - not because he's poor, not because he's obnoxious, but because she just thinks he's vile. He seems rotten to her and she doesn't like him taking up time she could be spending with Max. And what was really interesting for me was trying to think of Hitler as just this odd little guy who was around because we hear the word 'Hitler' today and we immediately get a picture of this horrible person but at that time no one could have foreseen who he would become. " Meyjes appreciated the sensuality that Sobieski brought to the story that he wanted lit with passion. He says of her: "It's very easy to write the role of a great aristocratic woman and almost impossible to find someone who can carry it off. Leelee does it beautifully. "
Meyjes also cast the Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen in the pivotal role of Captain Mayr, the army officer who encourages Hitler's talents for speechmaking. "I want people to discover Ulrich," he says. "Ever since I saw 'Celebration' I've thought he was a fantastic actor. "
In supporting roles, the cast is completed by highly regarded British actors and some of Hungary's leading stage actors. "Even in the smallest roles, we did not sacrifice," says Hamori. "The entire cast was remarkable. "
For Hamori, watching Meyjes at work on MAX was a sign that he had made the right decision, no matter how risky and complicated. "Any time you start a movie, you are scared of the director and fear they will turn into an inexplicable creature," he notes. "Here, we had Menno, an Academy Award nominated writer who has worked with the best in the business. So, I knew he could write but could he control it? Could he control this very daring, complex and delicate work and these very sophisticated actors? But as shooting went on, I became a convert. I feel that with this movie we've increased the very small number of important directors working in film today by one. "
MAX AND THE MODERN: THE FILM'S DESIGN
Long before shooting began, Menno Meyjes had imagined a very specific look for MAX - one that draws on the contrasting desolation and decadence of 1918 Germany yet exists in a kind of time warp that could just as easily allow its events to unfold today. He explains: "I went for a look that believes in art, for a look that places its faith in modernity and was drunk on the promise of the modern age. It is a look in a sense that believes in a look. But at the same time, I told all of the people working on the film that I wanted a film that looks like it could play in either 1918 or 2002. I wanted the characters to be dressed in such a way that if they walked into a room right now, no one would look up. There isn't even a car in the movie - because I didn't want that sort of marker. I wanted a kind of empty, Europe-on-a-Sunday afternoon feeling that puts the emphasis on the conversations and decisions made by the characters. "
Meyjes also wanted the imagery of MAX to reveal the incendiary atmosphere of the times, the electrical charge of straddling the border between a terrifying past and an uncertain future. "I wanted to give a visceral sense of how everybody came home from the horrors of World War One wanting to reinvent the world. They saw things in the war for which words were not yet invented and they were absolutely burning to put that on canvas, to reinvent the artistic code. There is no irony to this world - and even though I appreciate irony, I find that it flattens everything out - and I wanted to try something different. "
After a worldwide quest for the perfect city to stand in for 1918 Munich, Menno Meyjes settled on Budapest, Hungary as the location for MAX. "Munich itself was the exact opposite of what we were looking for," laughs Meyjes. "It is now entirely modern, filled with shiny buildings and speeding Mercedes. I kept saying 'show me old Munich,' the one with the post-war funk and the old buildings and the Bauhaus look but it has not survived. "
Meyjes and Andras Hamori toured Europe searching for an alternative but all along Hamori felt his native Budapest would hold the answer. "Andras just kept saying look at Budapest and I kept refusing," recalls Meyjes. "But when I got there I could not believe it. Here was the Munich of the mind, the Munich of myth and imagination. " Adds Hamori: "Budapest still has that turn-of-the-century charm and also is very industrial, with the kinds of dilapidated buildings you might find in Germany at that time. There is a sense there of being out of time, exactly what MAX required. "
Budapest had the visual dynamism, anachronism and moodiness Meyjes was seeking but it came at a price. "I do believe that Budapest during the time we were shooting there was the coldest place on God's earth," he says. "It happened to be the worst winter in Hungary in 15 years and we noticed the temperatures there were the same as in Leningrad. It was a pretty insane place to shoot a movie in unheated old buildings. "
Max's cavernous art gallery is actually an old train locomotive factory - featuring a warehouse space that is three football fields long. "Shooting in the old train factory was an exercise in torture," admits Meyjes. "It was always freezing in there and there was no good way to heat it. One day we thought it was snowing inside but then we discovered the snow was actually bits of the ceiling falling down and we suspected they were either asbestos or lead or both. It was also a bitch to light. You really had to have your act together to get the right shots because if you pointed the camera just a few feet off you would be in dire darkness. "
Working closely with acclaimed cinematographer Lajos Koltai, whose European sensibilities have come to the fore in such films as "Mephisto," "Sunshine" and "Malena," Meyjes attempted to give his film the visceral essence of modern art - especially the sneaky, shifting dynamic avant-garde movements. "Lajos and I were truly reaching for something with every frame," he says.
MAX AND THE SPIRIT OF DADA: A Brief Introduction to the Modern Art Explosion and Hitler's "Degenerate Art"
In the turbulent period between the two World Wars, modernism exploded, and with it came entirely new and radical notions about what could be expressed in art, and how. Once relegated to the decorous, art suddenly became dangerous and public - and artists themselves were threatened by political ideology. Perhaps nowhere in history was the intertwined tension between art and politics felt as strongly as in post-WWI Germany. And it was here, remarkably, that the historical Adolf Hitler, as a young man, pursued his career as a struggling artist amidst a thriving movement of Dadaists, Futurists and radical performance artists, many of whom his regime would later brutally persecute.
MAX takes a fictional route to explore Hitler's unusual collision with the art world. But the film and its title character clearly take their spirit from the daring, highly energized, irreverent art of the period, particularly the movement known as Dadaism. As Menno Meyjes says: "It was a time when people were looking to change the code of things, and with a new kind of art they could change the code and if you could change the code you would change the world. "
The spirit of Dada and the other avant-garde art movements were forged, in a sense, in the trenches of World War One. In the aftermath of a war that introduced the horrors of chemical and industrialized warfare for the first time, the world stood stunned by its own brutality, and Europe was reeling from a new urban reality made up of widows, the disabled, the starving and the unemployed masses. Faced with this jarring and incomprehensible reality, poets, writers, painters and musicians responded with art forms never before imaginable. Some called Dadaism the "anti-art," a kind of electric shock to a society watching its values crumble and its past fall away without any clear vision of the future. As Zurich Dadaist Tristan Tzara wrote of the modern art movement: "Art is going to sleep for a new world to be born. "
Artists of the time took up entirely new subjects: urban grit, the notion of speed, the worship and fear of machines, the horrors of war, the very feeling of chaos, irrationality and uncertainty. Some depicted a brave new world in which destitute war victims were as common a sight as classical European splendor; others looked optimistically to the modern future. Fearlessly, many artists expressed deep political dissatisfaction in their work and put out the disquieting philosophy that society could not go back, but had to face a future with new ideas.
Dadaists pioneered new means as well as messages: they began working in wildly anarchic photo-collages and photo-montages that reflected the dynamism and randomness of modern life, and they also developed the first multi-media performance art acts. The latter were often created specifically to push the audiences' buttons - to anger, incite or titillate them, and cause them to question what they had just seen. In one early Dadaist exhibit, the gallery-goers were handed axes so that they could destroy the art they saw if they so chose.
Through the 1920's, Dadaism spread like wildfire through Europe, especially cities such as Berlin, Zurich, Cologne, Hanover and Paris. In Germany, a country devastated by defeat in World War One and subsequent economic ruin, Dadaists such as George Grosz, Johannes Baeder, Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann and Hans Richter rose to fame, becoming especially strong in the multi-media art of photo-montage.
But Dadaism and modern art in general clashed with another equally strong movement in Germany - a conservative, nationalistic movement that labeled modern artists as unpatriotic, decadent and criminally revolutionary. Although Adolf Hitler had dabbled in modern art once upon a time after he came to power along with the Nazi Party, the art world was literally purged.
By 1937, Hitler had labeled all the art he didn't like "degenerate art" and those who created it were often brutally prosecuted. Adolf Zieglar, whom Hitler appointed president of the Reich Culture Chamber, proclaimed of modern art: "What you are seeing here are the crippled products of madness, impertinence, and lack of talent . . . I would need several freight trains to clear our galleries of this rubbish. " Many of Germany's most lauded artists escaped into exile but others died in concentration camps. Few artists of that time, no matter what the subjects of their work, were able to pursue their creative visions without dire and legitimate fear, or worse.