Munich, Germany 1918. The First World War is over. Germany has been humiliated at Versailles and the streets of the city are awash with forlorn, unemployed soldiers returning to find their beloved country in ruins. It's a chaotic state that's giving birth to the wondrous new art of Dada, but also to a new politics of hate.
Through this landscape scuttles a lank-haired corporal named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor), who has dreams of becoming a painter. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, Jewish war veteran turned art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack) is hosting an exhibition of modernist painting.
Neither man knows it yet, but their lives are about to intersect in a moment that could have turned the tide of history.
It takes courage to make a film about Hitler, especially when it's a film that treats the emblem of evil as a human being rather than a caricature. Deliberately setting itself at the moment before Hitler was seduced by the political cut and thrust of anti-Semitic rabble-rousing, "Max" exists in a time pocket where the "What if?" questions posed by the script are given free reign to develop.
Occasionally overwhelmed by its own sense of dramatic irony - as in the scene where Rothman looks at Hitler's sketches of swastikas, autobahns and Third Reich architecture and declares them artistic genius - Menno Meyjes' film mainly struggles to keep its central idea (that the Nazis might never have existed had Hitler become a successful artist) from collapsing into facileness.
While there's much to savour in the interplay between these two characters - one a potential monster, the other his potential victim - not to mention the film's carefully staged recreation of post-war Germany's burgeoning art scene, "Max" is really little more than an imaginative, cinematic footnote to Hitler's rise to power.