Blood Money

Why John Cusack wouldn't do anything till he made this Hitler movie

But it's not hard to see why Cusack would embrace Max, going so far as to put his career on hold till its completion: It's a movie packed with ideas, a movie about politics, a movie about a tyrant when he still wore training wheels. And Cusack has always fancied himself a humanist among the Hollywood heathens; however much he hates doing interviews, he loves the opportunity to blast whenever possible the National Rifle Association, any president named Bush, those who would call themselves "compassionate conservatives." He will talk at great length about supply-side economics, about the kitsch factor inherent in all political propaganda, about Michael Dukakis and that damned tank all those years ago. It's little wonder that Cusack for President chapters have popped up on dozens of college campuses, and they aren't even jokes: Money raised by these organizations has been donated to nonprofits that build schools in New York City, organizations that support campaign finance reform and civil-liberties groups.

Cusack sees in Max a movie that demands of its audience not a little attention and not a little participation. We're asked to view Hitler not as a monster, but as a lost and lonely man who could either disappear or destroy, depending on whether he listens to Rothman or the Army officer who sees in Hitler great potential for rabble-rousing. No matter how much the film irritates or accidentally amuses (too often the dialogue consists of people saying things like, "Who's that?" "Adolf Hitler." "Never heard of him." "You will."), you can't watch it passively. You will react to it. You will admire it, or you will loathe it. But you will not ignore it.

"It was such a strong piece on the page," Cusack says. "It was so kind of startling and invigorating, I just kind of rushed into it. I have a lot of faith that it's OK to make movies for people who think. It's not a bad thing. I think audiences are smarter than most filmmakers and studios give them credit for. I think there's a large number of the population who just want to go see movies to escape things, you know. They want to go see Maid in Manhattan. That's great. Those are escapist movies--the fantasies, the comedies. I like to make fantasies and comedies, but it's hard to make movies about history, about real things. I want to see those movies. I like movies that make me actually really pay attention, use the full capacity of my brain. That's a good thing. Let's make some more of those."

John Cusack asked his pal Nick Nolte how to get funding for Max. Nolte told him to do what they did on North Dallas Forty: Refuse to make another movie till someone pays for this one. Works every time.
Egon Endrenyi
John Cusack asked his pal Nick Nolte how to get funding for Max. Nolte told him to do what they did on North Dallas Forty: Refuse to make another movie till someone pays for this one. Works every time.

Some critics have said Cusack is entirely miscast as the avant-garde bon vivant Rothman, a husband and father with the boho girlfriend on the side. They see him not as a German-Jew (perhaps because he's Midwest Catholic?) with a missing right arm and a head full of passionate ideas about art and life and politics, but as that kickboxing kid who doesn't want to buy or sell or process anything bought or sold. They see him as they always have: as Lane Myers, Lloyd Dobler, Martin Blank, Rob Gordon--the suburban Everyman who's smarter than everyone else, more sensitive than everyone else and more ordinary than everyone else but nonetheless ends up with Ione Skye or Minnie Driver or Catherine Zeta-Jones.

But his Rothman fits snugly into the filmography, especially if one considers what Cameron Crowe said about his own movies. Not long ago, when speaking with the Dallas Observer, the writer-director of Say Anything... (starring Cusack) and Almost Famous (in which Taylor played a rock band's manager), Crowe said his movies were all about the very same thing: "the brutal journey of the idealist." Rothman easily fits the description. He thinks he can save Hitler's soul by getting him to look deep into his wounded heart. Rothman believes in beauty, in a new world sick of hate and violence. In 1920 Germany, the idealist doesn't stand a chance. The idealist will, sooner than later, end up with his back against a brick wall.

"Max was hard," Cusack says, taking a deep breath. "I kind of just do stuff that speaks to me, and if people like it, that's great. If they don't like it, I don't know what to say. Whatever I want to say, I try to say through these films, you know? I'm definitely with that. But this was hard. We even had reviewers in Toronto, instead of reviewing it in Toronto..." He pauses. "It was a stunning, stunning screening. You could say what you want, you could say you hated the film, but you couldn't say the energy wasn't there. You could cut it with a knife. But we've had major reviewers say, 'Well, I'm not going to write about it until I figure out how to handle it.' Well, what kind of shit is that? Write about it! This is what you do! This is an event! They want to see which way the wind blows, and I guess that's fair. You want to think about it, see it again. But it's a little bit more difficult when you do stuff like this. I don't know how often people make stuff like this."

Uh, not very?

"No, man," he says. "It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

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