Not far into the arduous journey of making "Max," Menno Meyjes' controversial film about the early life of Adolf Hitler, John Cusack debated with his father, a World War II veteran. "He said, 'John, this is a worthy piece, but it disturbs me,'" said Cusack, who plays a German Jewish art dealer who befriends Hitler during his artist years. "He told me, 'I just don't want to see that man as human.' And that paradox excited me. I also knew intellectually that Hitler was human but emotionally I didn't want to accept it. It was easier for me to imagine him as Grendel in the cave, breathing fire and drinking blood. And within that discomfort lies the brilliance of the film."
It's also the reason the provocative movie -- dubbed a "'Pulp Fiction' -sized shot of intellectual adrenaline" by the Los Angeles Times -- raised ire despite having one of Hollywood's most popular actors as its star and champion. While cliched or cartoonlike images of Hitler have long graced the silver screen, from Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" to Mel Brooks' 1968 version of "The Producers," "Max" breaks precedent by depicting the future Fuhrer as caustic but human.
Shattering the cinematic taboo made the film, and its filmmakers, virtual pariahs in Hollywood and beyond. "No one wanted anything to do with us," said Dutch-born Meyjes, best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple."
Prospective investors avoided the project, going so far as to pretend they were someone else on the telephone, Meyjes said. A number of viewers stormed out of the "Max" premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, according to the Los Angeles Times; the right-wing Jewish Defense League labeled the movie "a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors"; the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust declined to host screenings, and a cynical New York Times column lumped the movie in with several other projects on the young Hitler (including a proposed 2003 CBS miniseries, "Hitler: The Early Years).
After reading the column, titled "Swastikas for Sweeps," Cusack -- who took no salary for the film -- promptly telephoned columnist Maureen Dowd. "I pointed out that she had mocked 'Max' but hadn't even seen it, like most of the film's detractors," said the intense, soft-spoken actor, leaning forward in his chair over a bottle of Pellegrino at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "But she wouldn't admit that her comments felt caustic and dismissive. She just said, 'Oh, I love your work; I'd love to see the film.' I said I thought her approach was lazy."
The idea for "Max" began with Meyjes' childhood in post-war Holland, a milieu "absolutely drenched in Hitler," according to the 48-year-old writer-director. His father, Johannes, spent his late teens in a German slave labor camp, where a Nazi smashed out his front teeth with a rifle butt. "To my family, the Fuhrer was a one-dimensional beast," said Meyjes, who became obsessed with the question of whether Hitler was human.
While perusing Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler" around 1998, Meyjes read a quote by Nazi architect Albert Speer: "If you want to understand Hitler, you have to understand he was an artist first." "Suddenly I had a way into a movie about my [question]," he said. "I decided to make a film about a man who chooses to become a monster."
After extensive research, Meyjes said he wrote Hitler (played in the film by a riveting Noah Taylor) as a marginally talented, virtually homeless painter who is petulant, self-pitying, puritanical, grandiose, maladroit, with "a tortured relationship with his physical self and the caprices of the body.
"There is almost a sexual element to his artistic failure," Meyjes said. "Because he loathes himself, he cannot penetrate his paintings."
The fictional gallery owner Max Rothman, maimed in World War I, meanwhile, is suave and worldly while trying to persuade fellow veteran Hitler to channel his pent-up rage into art instead of politics. Meyjes said Rothman is "loosely based on a Viennese Jewish gallery owner, Josef Neumann, who was always telling Hitler that he had to work harder and that he was lazy."
The quintessentially assimilated German-Jewish character immediately intrigued Cusack, 36, who grew up in a liberal, activist Irish-Catholic family (the radical Berrigan brothers were frequent guests in his Chicago-area home and his mother has been arrested for her anti-war activities). The secular, casually idealistic Rothman "is Jewish in the way I am Catholic," said Cusack, who is renown for playing heartsick heartthrobs in films such as "Say Anything" and "High Fidelity." "It informs who he is but it is not how he primarily defines himself."
"I also strongly identified with Max because he is an intellectual, a sensualist, a modernist, a man who is flawed but who understands that art can change the world," the actor said. "In him I saw some part of myself that is damaged and something I would like to be." Max's relationship with Hitler, Cusack added, "is like Europe having a conversation with its shadow."
Leelee Sobieski, 20, who plays Max's glamorous artist-mistress Liselore, also felt a connection to the project because of her family history. Her French-born father, Jean, a painter, shares bloodlines with the 17th century Polish King Jan Sobieski, for whom, legend has it, the bagel was invented. Her beloved maternal grandfather, the late Navy captain Robert Salomon, was Jewish and attended synagogue near his New Jersey home, sometimes with Sobieski. "I'm sure that relatives on both sides of my family suffered because of Hitler," said Sobieski, whose role was further informed by her work in the 2001 NBC Holocaust miniseries, "Uprising." "Liselore is the only character who immediately despises Hitler, and after playing a Warsaw ghetto partisan it was very easy for me to look at Noah Taylor and think, 'I hate you.'"
Taylor, not surprisingly, was the actor with the most reservations about signing on to "Max." The slender, affable Australian actor had brilliantly portrayed another tortured artist in the acclaimed 1996 film, "Shine," based on the life of the mentally-ill pianist, David Helfgott, the son of a domineering Holocaust survivor. But playing Hitler was another matter. "I was debating whether this was a role that I could live with, plus the usual narcissistic concerns of 'What will this do to my career?'" he sheepishly said during a Journal interview. "But eventually I realized my fear of the role was precisely why I should do it."
To prepare, Taylor read numerous biographies and studied the Fuhrer's body language in Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film, "Triumph of the Will," which he practiced in front of a mirror. "I wanted to provide little glimpses of what was to come for Hitler -- such as the vain gesture he had of smoothing his hair," said Taylor, 33. "It was like mincy military. Hitler had all these incredibly odd and effete gestures, the hands on hips, for example, which I combined with his rigid body language from having been a soldier. It was like he was so self-conscious that his body didn't ever relax."
He felt he'd done his job a bit too well when, on the set in Budapest, he glimpsed himself in a mirror and felt like he was "wearing a horror mask." At the movie's premiere in Toronto, Taylor worried, "It could all end up with me being spat on."
It didn't happen, although the very idea of a movie about the young Hitler has since disturbed some Jewish leaders. "A film about the young Hitler is only half the story, which isn't truthful history," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance. "Next we'll have the Young Saddam Hussein, which won't bother to mention the Gulf War."
Rachel Jagoda, director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said the film's conceit confused her survivor constituents. "They would say, 'Why should I go see a movie about the young Hitler?'" Jagoda said. "They don't care that he was once an artist. They just care that he killed everyone they knew and loved."
Cusack, however, insists "Max" has an important message, one that resonates today. "It would be much easier for me if Osama bin Ladin didn't have a mother or father," he said. "'It would make the world a lot simpler if he arrived on earth in a pink vapor, did his business and disappeared in a puff of smoke. But the reality is more painful. He's a human being like you and me."