Truth and reality in art do not arise until you no longer understand what you are doing and are capable of but nevertheless sense a power that grows in proportion to your resistance. – Henri Matisse
Why is art so expensive? Otherwise, no one would buy it. – “Max”
From a very famous, Oscar-winning (Best Picture and Best Actress) film to a film almost no one saw:
Quite by chance (?), the same week in 2010 that I first saw Black Swan in a theater, I also found the 2002 film Max on Netflix. It’s a speculative account of Adolf Hitler’s life during the fall and winter of 1918. This was just at the end of World War I, when Germany was destitute, and the impoverished veteran was wavering between his ambition to be a successful artist and the temptation of extremist politics. Indeed, Russia had recently had a revolution and all of Germany was vacillating between the far left and the far right.
Americans have only been able to imagine Germany’s condition at that time by seeing 1972’s Cabaret, the best-known film about Weimar Germany, which is set much later, in 1931, when the Nazis where on the verge of taking power. For a darker and probably more accurate presentation, see the recent German TV series Babylon Berlin, which takes place in 1929 (also on Netflix).
We think we’re familiar with the all-powerful Fuhrer, and for 75 years, from both right and left, we have universally cited his image as the embodiment of pure evil. However, that is an archetypal image, a projection from the collective unconscious, from us. As an archetype, it is a potential characteristic we all carry.
This energy was embodied most famously by one person, roughly from 1920 to 1945. Max is the only film that I’m aware of that has wondered how that archetype chose that particular man; it’s the only film that has attempted to depict his precarious psychological state before he became a public figure.
What was that state? Liminality – the condition of “betwixt-and-between”, when one has been torn loose from everything one once knew to be true, when one’s fate hangs in the balance. It’s the condition that traditional societies once recognized. Such societies provided the elders and bounded ritual conditions to guide their initiates through the terrible passage to adulthood. In the extreme, such a passage went through the territory of re-living old trauma.
Black Swan and Max deal with the same theme: the absolutely essential encounter with one’s early psychological wounds – what we have repressed and condemned to the “dark side” of consciousness – in order to access and offer our gifts to the world. This is a common, even clichéd theme these days, but both films had me asking myself, “What are we willing to pay attention to? Just how much of our personal and collective darkness are we willing to know, to welcome, to love? What are we willing to sacrifice? How much are we willing to pay in order to manifest a truly creative life?” As viewers know, the ballerina does enter the heart of darkness and does give the performance of a lifetime, but she pays a severe price.
Similarly, in this film, the fictional Jewish Munich art-dealer Max Rothman becomes a reluctant mentor to the 29-year old Adolf Hitler, despite the younger man’s anti-Semitism. He sees that, below the anger, Hitler has an “authentic voice” and encourages him to “go as deep as you possibly can” in order to create something truly valuable. They argue about the purpose of art. Rothman, contrasting the hesitant and insecure Hitler with the impassioned, left-wing artists Georg Grosz and Max Ernst (both historical figures), argues, “It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just has to be true.”
But there is a second mentor. The right-wing army captain Karl Mayr (also an actual historical figure), senses Adolf’s intellectual and oratorical potential, his untapped charisma, and an uninitiated, pathological self-hatred that can be very useful to the anti-democratic cause. He arranges for the army to pay Hitler’s living expenses while he masters the arts of propaganda and instigation of mob violence. Hitler goes on to begin his speaking career by invoking German innocence: Germany had been defeated because the good, pure, brave Germans had been “stabbed in the back” by Communists and the traditional Others, the Jews.
Adolf can go either way; he can still possibly inhabit his better self and reject his darker potential. But Max Rothman can only offer the enticements and mild satisfactions of the same kind of secular liberalism that so many of us would reject two generations later. Mayr offers him ritual. It may be ritual that has been twisted and deformed, but it is still ritual, something that our indigenous souls recognize inherently.
And he offers Adolf a place within a community (twisted as it is) of hate and scapegoating, something that the Teutonic mind has been familiar with for a thousand years. Hitler is on his way to becoming the latest in a long line of charismatic German personalities who have manipulated mass resentment of the rich and turned it against the weak. For more on this theme, read The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn.
The traumas of poverty and racism have condemned millions to lives that Thomas Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish and short.” Predictably, many men have arisen from these conditions to manifest their worst potentials, to go for power instead of love, to join their oppressors and participate in the perpetuation of these conditions, as so many police are doing right now all across the country.
But after thirty years in the Men’s Movement, I’ve been fortunate to have met many men (such as Louis Rodriguez) who survived the worst excesses of urban street life to become poets, teachers, musicians and activists. I recall reading the autobiographies of Malcom X and Claude Brown. Although far more have not succeeded, these lives offer us models of how things could be, given the presence of authentic mentors at the right time. For so many others, we wonder, “What if?”
Max is a “What if?” story. Though they never meet, the two angels of Hitler’s nature compete for his soul, and as no viewer of the film can miss, for the soul of the entire world. Rothman, a champion of the new Expressionism, tells him, “You’ve got to take all this pent-up stuff that you’re quivering with and hurl it onto the canvas…Get out of politics…If you put the same amount of energy into your art as you do into your speeches, you might have something going.” But Hitler’s attempt to tap into his pain and rage goes nowhere artistically. Are his wounds too strong, his discipline too weak, or his talent simply absent? Perhaps all three.
But there is an easier way out (one that Black Swan’s Nina does not take) – the lure of scapegoating others as a way to deny his pain. Mayr’s advice is superficially similar but more convincing: “You’ve got your own talent.” – which clearly has nothing to do with painting – “Just let it out!”
The difference between this fictional Hitler and fictional Nina is critical and instructive. Because she is both deeply talented and highly disciplined, she is able (at least for a while) to hold the almost unbearable tension between her angel and her demon. Some might say that because she symbolically kills the demon, she can’t hold that tension for long. But she does make great art – if only for a moment – and contributes a lasting gift to the dance world. Adolf, on the other hand, is at best a second-rate artist, and he simply cannot improve his technique or – more importantly – work the terrible nature of his soul.
But he does “go deeper,” and he begins to muster a particular discipline that will focus on the development of a charismatic personality (from persona, mask). Apparently having made his choice between art as art and art as propaganda, he tells Max,
Go deeper, you said. I went deep. Deeper than any artist has gone before! This is the new art! Politics is the new art!…Art and politics equals power!
Late in the film, Max realizes that Hitler’s art is “futuristic kitsch.” Nevertheless, he attempts to channel that ferocity into the art world, where it might be less harmful to society: “You finally found your voice – the future as a return to the past.” But Hitler, as we know, will succumb to the lure of that mythical past and potentially future greatness. The film ends on Christmas eve, 1918, as Max is murdered by thugs whom Hitler had provoked.
Though not portrayed in Max, less than two weeks later, leftists would go on general strike in the violent Spartacist uprising. Hitler’s fascist allies will prevail, and Germany will begin its spin into that future.
Here is both the contrast with the ballerina and the frightening commentary on our current culture and politics. Nina will crack the masks of Black and White in dramatic expression, while Hitler will retreat behind a different mask and inhabit it for an entire nation. With neither her talent, nor her commitment, nor an artistic community like hers – an authentic ritual container – he falls victim to his own darkness and the peculiar darkness of his culture (think Darth Vader here – “Vader” is German/Dutch for “father”). He succumbs to the easy lure of projection – hatred of the Other – and discovers – we discover – how hate can make its own community.
In doing so, Hitler becomes a conduit for the darkest forces of the psyche and the world. As we know, he will briefly succeed in restoring a sense of destiny – and wounded innocence – in an entire nation. Max was filmed in 2001, the same year as the beginning of the “War on Terror.” I doubt if its creators had the theme of American innocence in mind, but nearly twenty years later, we would be fools, wallowing in our own denial, not to see the parallels.