“I did some modern stuff in the trenches” says the aspiring artist uncertainly to the worldly art dealer, thus introducing Max’s audience to the film’s outrageous, horribly modern theory: that war, an aesthetically complete and deeply iconic expression of nationhood, is a majestically proportioned act of performance art.

Max isn’t history by any means, nor does it intend to take pity on Adolf Hitler for his limited vision on canvas—the extrapolation of that particular equation is too grotesque to contemplate. But among the what-ifs of Hitler’s life, his early passion for painting is one that has not been explored in cinema. And writer-director Menno Meyjes doesn’t allow his war-as-art proposition to overshadow the atrocities of World War II: Max opens on the scathing paintings of antiwar activist George Grosz, who was forced to flee the Nazis in 1932. Given that, just last week, Picasso’s Guernica—perhaps the most famous and moving piece of art-as-war-against-war—was draped during the UN speech in which Colin Powell laid out the results of the inspections in Iraq, the image couldn’t be more resonant.

Max Rothman (John Cusack) is a suave, wealthy Jewish art dealer reveling in the perks of the Weimar Republic: beautiful wife, adorable kids, fetching artsy mistress, stunning modernist home. What he sees in Hitler’s portfolio is a mystery. (The film is actually kinder to Hitler’s art than history; it displays none of the irrationally composed, feebly competent sentimental landscapes that survive.) It’s Hitler’s mien that attracts Max. As played with uncompromising fearlessness by Australian actor Noah Taylor, the future dictator is scabby and ratlike, touchy, cripplingly shy, humorless, punishingly ascetic, and free of both manners and sexual curiosity—traits that Max, without our hindsight, recognizes as those of a truly eccentric artist. And why not? Grosz himself was known to spew beery vomit as a mark of his approval at the way his paintings were hung.

Max also feels a connection with Hitler’s damage: They were both at the killing fields of Ypres, and the defeat that scarred them both as Germans—Max having left the use of his arm behind, Hitler his pride—brings them together. The class connotations of their wartime experiences are not lost on guilty Max (the rich kid was a cavalryman), and certainly not on the burningly resentful Hitler (a mere foot soldier). Max wants to help the lazy hothead because he sees Germany’s future in a splendid uprushing of vibrant, ideologically driven art. So, alas, does Hitler.

Max goes deeper than most pre-Holocaust horror shows, vividly showing how the damaged pride of a defeated nation and long-held insecurities over its racial identity found their convergence point at the hatred of Jews. During a party at the Rothmans’, the camera pans across Max’s precious things—his family, his porcelains—but we know they won’t protect him from the rage of the dispossessed army, to which Hitler still belongs, when the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles are announced. The army scrubs have nothing for defense but their meager pay, and they cast about for a political ideology on which to hang their fury. They light on “stabbed in the back” as a slogan, and when the scurrying, unpleasant Cpl. Hitler turns out to be a rather good speaker, he distills the target from an unfightable world council to an irrationally chosen but more appealing inside foe: the “blood poisoning” that has diluted Germany’s national will.

The fateful difference between Max and his would-be protege is that Max has a cynicism for kitsch to which Hitler is immune. Meyjes hints that the sophisticates of any society, with their sense of nuance and fluid morality, are defenseless against the brutes who see decadence in irony, sedition in protest, verity in sentimental simplicity. For Max, ideology is a stance, an artist’s game that requires varying degrees of aesthetic rigor. The film even likens Hitler’s “modern work in the trenches” to the case of a young dancer who swallows a tapeworm to make a more elegant line onstage. Thus are grotesque acts undertaken in the name of art, and thus is Max’s woeful conception of the limits of such acts. Meyjes should have known better than to make such crude parallels in an otherwise compelling and complex movie, but the pull of obviousness was apparently too strong.

Worse, the movie’s small moments of ravishing sweet-sour beauty—Max’s mistress (Leelee Sobieski) curled up on her silken tangle of a bed while a circle of kerosene burns on the floor, Max’s hilariously lousy antiwar performance-art piece earnestly enacted in his abandoned ironworks of a gallery, Hitler tormentedly daubing a single blue spot on a badly stretched canvas in an effort at expressionist modernity—are thrown aside for an ending of surpassing stupidity. It’s enough to posit that the will to power and the will to create are linked impulses, and it’s cute (and already too tidy) to add an encouraging Jewish art dealer to the mix.

But Meyjes, trapped in his scenario, escapes by gnawing his own leg off: All of the director’s ambivalent toying with Hitler’s frustration and indecision (“Dr. Levy, eh?” shouts Hitler as Max runs off to meet with a collector. “You’ll make a sale for sure!”) turns on a missed connection so pat the writers of Three’s Company wouldn’t have used it. Scoot out before the film’s last five minutes and you can convince yourself you’ve seen a near-masterpiece; stick around and you’ll watch it turn to kitsch. CP

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