Movies

My Dinner With Adolf

Max is riotously tasteless; Amen is a rejoinder to Blind Spot.

John Cusack and Molly Parker dance with danger
John Cusack and Molly Parker dance with danger

Max (Lions Gate), directed and written by Menno Meyjes, is the story of a wealthy Jewish art dealer, Max Rothman (John Cusack), who in 1920 develops a strange attachment to a seething little misfit corporal and would-be artist named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). Rothman lost an arm in the trenches fighting for Germany in World War I, which ended his dream of being a painter. Since then, he has become a patron and proselytizer for modern art, especially the corrosive Expressionism in vogue during the unsettled Weimar Republic. Hitler, on the other hand, strives to make art that advances “eternal values and natural laws.” He tells the Jew that his taste is “disgusting” and that the work he champions is like “diarrhea” dumped on a canvas.

Still, Max and Adolf, the tall rangy Jew and the runty Aryan, have an affinity. Rothman even tries to fix up the disheveled ranter with a friend of his mistress (Leelee Sobieski). He tells Hitler that his sketches of war scenes are good but, emotionally speaking, just “scratching the surface”: He wants Hitler to convey what it felt like in the trenches. Rothman has heard Hitler speak in the park to groups of Germans disaffected after the humiliation at Versailles, and he finds the young man’s anti-Semitism troubling. “If you were to put some of the energy into your art that you do your speaking, you might have something going,” he says. Later, Rothman makes his prescription for Hitler plainer: “You’ve got to take all this pent-up stuff that you’re quivering with and hurl it onto the canvas.”

Hitler understands what Rothman means. “Sometimes,” he confesses, haltingly, “I have these terrible doubts”—to which Rothman responds: “Paint them! Paint your doubts! Really!” He tells Hitler to be “voluptuous” with his own emotion—and Adolf tries, he really tries. But his attempt to tap into his pain and anger goes nowhere, artistically. Then an army officer with Fascist leanings asks Hitler to fill in for a speaker at a rally for the new “National Socialist” Party, and, in the course of giving vent to his hopes for a mighty, pureblood state, Hitler finds his voice.

He sneers to Rothman: “I realized something that all you hoity-toity types missed drinking your coffees and smoking your cigarettes with your mistresses. The way to reinvent art is not to make it political—that’s far too small a step. Politics is the new art. Yes, Rothman, my whole life has been a detour to this moment. … I am the new artist! I am the new avant-garde!”

And yet … Hitler has not given up hope of making a life in art. He sketches heroic plazas, army uniforms, and mythical Aryan men and women—and Rothman looks at those renderings and sees the passion in them. Even if, he tells a friend, Hitler’s work is “futuristic kitsch,” it has a purity and intensity that commands attention. Hitler, buoyed by Rothman’s enthusiasm, gives another speech to rally his Nazis, then tells his officer friend that he might not want to dabble in politics after all: Rothman is going to meet with him at a cafe to discuss a show of his work.

As luck would have it, on his way to that cafe Rothman meets up with a bunch of Nazi goons inspired by Hitler. … Poor Max. Poor Adolf. Poor Jews. Poor civilization.

My synopsis only hints at what a breathtaking piece of work Max is. As a Saturday NightLive sketch it would merely be tasteless. But as a ravishingly photographed, high-minded meditation on the potential of art and therapy to exorcise the vilest sort of psychological poison, it is positively riotous—an Everest of idiocy. Tony Soprano and his Italian Freudian aren’t a patch on Hitler and his Jewish art therapist. Max is not only the ultimate mismatched buddy fantasy (Hitler even moans about Max’s smoking and tells him he shouldn’t eat meat), it’s another demonstration of secular-liberal Judaism’s boundless conviction that any repressed Gentile can be loosened up with a little therapeutic plumbing. The only surprise is that Max never prods Hitler to discuss his mom.

Although he sometimes sounds like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein (1974), Noah Taylor has impressively transformed himself into a sniveling little sack of glowers and tics. I don’t know if this is the real Hitler—but he’s a plausible missing link between the paranoiacs you see wandering the street and the convulsive railer of the newsreels.

Traudl Junge: Hitler's support staff
Traudl Junge: Hitler’s support staff

You get a picture of a kinder, gentler Hitler from the good documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (Sony Classics), which consists of a 90-minute interview with the woman who typed the F ührer’s letters and was with him for those final, alternately stuporous and hysterical days in the bunker. After refusing all but the most perfunctory interviews for more than half a century, Traudl Junge spoke to directors André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, and then allowed them to film her watching herself on a monitor. These are the movie’s most riveting moments: She moves her lips along with the image of herself on camera, as if she’s hanging on every word, as if she can’t believe that the person she’s watching knew nothing of Hitler’s true nature or his Final Solution. Sometimes she breaks in to amend her descriptions, sometimes to muse at the banality of her own observations given the enormity of the subject. The Hitler she knew was a courtly old gent who didn’t like to be touched, didn’t express emotion, and didn’t discuss the Jews—except to say that one shouldn’t surrender to mawkish sentimentality when there is a duty to be done. He could make “a whole evening’s entertainment” out of stroking his dog, Blondie—that is, until he poisoned the animal to test the strength of the cyanide with which he expected to take his life.

Frau Junge’s words come out in a rush, her anger at her Führer mingled with affection for how he made her feel, her professions of guilt broken by pleas of ignorance. She was raised without a father, she says—which made her the perfect obedient servant of the man who embodied the revitalized Fatherland. “I think I matured late as well,” she adds. Very late. In the end, she speaks of a classmate—a girl her own age—who denounced the Reich and was quickly arrested and executed. “It was no excuse to be young,” she says. Frau Junge died the evening after the 2001 premiere of Blind Spot at the Berlin Film Festival, after telling its directors, “I think I’m beginning to forgive myself.” This seesaw of shame and self-justification might not speak for the most murderous segment of the German populace, but it’s a peculiarly eloquent representation of the silent, obedient majority.

The new Costa-Gavras film Amen (Kino International) is an elaboration of the Rolf Hochhuth play The Deputy, which scandalized Catholics (especially European Catholics) in the ‘60s by charging that Pope Pius XII had been repeatedly informed about the systematic extermination of the Jews—yet had failed to speak out publicly or even to denounce the Nazis until after Germany had surrendered. Amen focuses on an SS chemical engineer named Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur) who witnesses the gassing of Jewish women and children and attempts to enlist the church and the pope in a plan to tell the world—including the German people, whom he feels sure would rise up in outrage if they knew of the Final Solution.

The movie is repetitious, crudely dramatized, and awkwardly acted—in English, which seems to be the second or third language of everyone involved. In between scenes of Gerstein and a young priest (Mathieu Kassovitz) getting word to the impassive pope (Marcel Iures) and waiting, in effect, for a papal cavalry that never comes, Costa-Gavras offers shots of empty trains rushing by while the music pounds home the horror. Yet the movie, heavy-handed as it is, serves as a powerful rejoinder to BlindSpot. Pius XII, who preaches moderation and prayer in the face of the Nazi Holocaust, fears the Communists more than the Fascists and would rather look discreetly away than put the Vatican’s wealth  and security at risk—especially for the sake of the Jews. Amen makes the case that evil could never flourish without willful, self-preserving blind spots.