Was Hitler always a monster, or might he have been a failed artist with a chip on his shoulder? Menno Meyjes's imaginative speculation is entirely believable and the creation of Max Rothman, played with exceptional wit and intelligence by John Cusack, is truly inspired.

Shot in Budapest, standing in for Munich, 1918, the film has a dark, post-Apocalyptic feel to it, with a vibrant artistic life, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of defeat. Max is Jewish, from an upper-class family. He has the confidence that tradition and money brings,as well as a fascination for the new, although he tells his young mistress, Liselore (Leelee Sobieski), "I have seen the future. It came straight at us. There is no future in the future."

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Having lost his right arm in the war, ending his career as a painter, he opens a gallery in an old ironworks and sells massive canvases from the emerging modern movement. He finds that he has a natural gift for the game, enough of a showman to attract crowds at his happenings, supportive of young talent and persuasive with prospective buyers. His accountant (Peter Capaldi) is less impressed by his business acumen.

Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor) is an out-of-work ex-corporal, with a portfolio of technically adept drawings that lack "an authentic voice." He hates Max's ease with clients and quickness of phrase, because it emphasises his own lack of charm and social awareness. Max, on the other hand, does not give up on artists and encourages Hitler with faint praise, to which Adolf is quick to spot flaws. "Try not to be one of those people who finds a slight in any compliment," Max says.

Meyjes is clever in the way he shows how Hitler slips into street politics, almost out of desperation, everything else having failed. Max feels sorry for him, because he has no friends, while adding the rebuke, "You're a bit lazy, Hitler. Max Ernst gets up at dawn."

It is impossible not to watch the film without remembering what will happen, but then this is as much about Max and his world as it is about a ratty little Austrian whom Liselore finds repulsive. The script is dazzlingly good, not afraid to drop names where appropriate, nor treat The Great Evil as an ordinary man. "Do you think I am talented?" he asks. "There is definitely something rustling behind your curtain," Max replies, although would never have believed what it was that eventually emerged.

The performances are as sharp as the dialogue. Taylor's interpretation avoids cliched mannerisms, as if they have yet to be added to the propaganda picture. By the end, he is smarming his hair down flat and wears a long leather coat. Cusack's success in bringing Max so fiercely to life is equalled by Taylor's tentative attempts at rabble rousing.

It is probably true that Adolf Who? might easily have slipped through the cracks of history and become a painter of pretty landscapes and favourite pets. His talk of "the purity of blood" would have dissipated into the hot air above tea room chatterers and when he shouts in Max's face, "I am the new avant garde," it would have been forgotten, like the ravings of a disturbed ego.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2003
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A friendship between an artist and Hitler as a young man.
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Director: Menno Meyjes

Writer: Menno Meyjes

Starring: John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski, Ulrich Thomsen, David Horovitch, Janet Suzman, Peter Capaldi, Kevin McKidd

Year: 2002

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada/Germany/Hungary/UK

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