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This is no joke. Adolf Hitler, the lighter side, the early years, is coming to movie theaters.
It's "Springtime for Hitler" without the jokes or the songs. Or the irony.
Max, a movie written and directed by Menno Meyjes, is scheduled for release on Dec. 27 by Lions Gate Films. The film, which takes place in post-World War I Munich, stars John Cusack as Max Rothman, a German Jewish art dealer who takes a young artist named Adolf Hitler (played by Noah Taylor) under his wing.
The idea of this film, according to sources, is to show how Hitler was transformed from a troubled, unrealized artist into the most evil criminal mind of all time.
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But more importantly, how Hitler became the greatest anti-Semite of all time and the killer of six million Jews. Because Max only concerns itself with Hitler's vicious hatred of Jews and with none of the other atrocities that came to bear his stamp.
This is a calculated risk on the part of Lions Gate and producer Alliance Atlantis Communications. The thinking, again according to insiders, is that the movie will have the impact of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful — i.e. first shock the audience, then win them over.
This may be more difficult to do than the producers and Meyjes can hope for.
Max, unlike Life Is Beautiful, prominently features a hideous and reviled historical figure as one of its two main characters. Will the audience want to see Adolf Hitler as an attractive young man dining in cafes and chatting with friends?
In the screenplay of Max, which I read over the weekend, Hitler is presented as eccentric and poorly groomed but nevertheless articulate and passionate. He spouts anti-Semitic epithets constantly, working them into his daily conversation with ease. It would be the equivalent of a movie about racism in America in which the "n" word is used constantly.
During one such conversation, Rothman (named Hoffman in the original script, but evidently changed by the time the movie was shot last year in Amsterdam and Vienna) asks Hitler: "You're not an anti-Semite, are you?"
Hitler replies: "On the contrary, I admire the Jews … Oh yes, they're very intelligent … because they guard the purity of their blood … 'cause the secret of the Jews lies in the pure Jewish blood. It's why they are the mightiest counterpart to the Aryan race …" Later, further explaining his theory to Rothman, Hitler continues: "Mensch!! Of course your mom's Jewish. With a beak like yours?"
Anti-Semitic remarks and conversations aren't limited to Hitler, either. In the first four minutes of the script, a man on the street says of Jews: "They're all in stocks, my dear. The Duke of Westminster used to own a spaniel called 'Jew,' 'cept when his Rothschild banker came over — then they called him 'Joe.'"
At the heart of Max lurks the concept that Hitler was a poor, alienated art student who couldn't make of a go of it. Rothman, the Cusack character, even characterizes an early speech by Hitler as an "art project."
"This is what he says," Rothman tells a friend about Hitler. "Politics is the new art, and I'm the new avant-garde of artist."
While Rothman, family and friends pray in a synagogue, Hitler delivers his first speech. "Is there any form of filth, particularly in cultural life, without a Jew involved in it? 'Cause if you cut into an abscess what do you find, like a maggot in a rotting body … a kike!!"
The speech is counterpointed with prayers from the synagogue.
A source at Lions Gate defended the script for Max to me yesterday by pointing out that many of the filmmakers, including Meyjes, are Jewish. At the same time, at least one of the studio's top-ranking executives conceded that he'd never read the script. "I can't believe that anyone at Lions Gate would allow an apologist movie about Hitler to be made."
I am told that other studios besides Lions Gate considered developing Meyjes' script and producing it. Cusack, who is not Jewish, has reportedly told interviewers that Max was the best script he'd seen since Being John Malkovich.
Max, from what I saw in this draft, is not an apologist movie. But what may cause concern down the road is its humanizing of Adolf Hitler — the same Hitler who spews hatred specifically directed at Jews.
It will be interesting to see whether this will play in a political climate that suggests Americans should understand Al Qaeda's motivation for blowing up the World Trade Center. Do we really want to know why Adolf Hitler ordered the murder of six million Jews? Isn't it enough that he did? Those will be the questions when Max opens this Christmas.