Menno Meyjes


Interviewed by Nev Pierce

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Menno Meyjes makes his directorial debut with the controversial drama "Max" - starring John Cusack as a Jewish art dealer who becomes friendly with the young Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor).

A thoughtful, intelligent piece, it's matched by its Dutch creator, who talks about terrorism, Hitler's humanity and hospitalising his star...

The film has been accused of humanising Hitler, as if he wasn't human in the first place...

What I think that people continue to miss about the humanising of Hitler - which is already linguistically so suspect - is that what I'm laying at his feet is that he committed the greatest evil of all, which was he made a choice to be evil, for his own ambition. If you don't do that, really you can claim extenuating circumstances. You can say, "Your honour, my client was a monster, so he raged around the Earth for 57 years and that was it."

People lay this at my feet all the time, that it's a 'what if' movie. Well actually it isn't a 'what if' movie, I think that's a shallow reading of the text really, it's certainly not a 'what if' movie... I think the 'what if' aspect is, had Hitler not been such an emotional coward, had he been able to be a more profound artist, had he been able to be a more courageous artist, had he been able to be find that in his character, then I think things would have been different.

How important was John Cusack's involvement, both creatively and in terms of getting the film made?

I think creatively he was far more important than... Johnny absolutely helped us by being involved, but it took us two years to get the film mounted so I can't say that people suddenly said, "Oh you've got John Cusack!" It's not like you've got Tom Cruise, you know, where you say, "That's it then, when do we start?" They would say, "Great, so you've got John Cusack, so what? Why don't you go and make another movie with John Cusack and we'll be happy to pay for that."

But creatively he was much, much, much more important. My [producer] partner and I, we knew we were just going to stick with it until we got this finance. That was it. We were just going to get this done. Much more importantly was Cusack's contribution creatively. He's a brilliant actor.

How method-y did Noah Taylor get as Hitler?

He didn't get all that method-y. He was still Noah and everything, between takes, but he didn't hang out with us. We were all there in Budapest and on Saturday night we'd all go out to dinner together. Noah would never come out with us.

As a way of maintaining his distance...

Exactly, a way of maintaining his distance, his otherness. There was that moment in one of the first shots when Leelee Sobieski is walking down the street and he's watching her and he seems like a hungry wolf the way he watches her. It was an incredibly cold morning, minus 12 or something, it's unbelievable. So I walk up to Noah and I look at him. I'd seen the way he did the first shot and I said, "Noah, you look really cold and you look really hungry" and he said, "That's because I'm not wearing any underwear and I haven't eaten for 24 hours." That's commitment. He didn't get method-y, he was just really committed at the times he needed to be committed.

All the actors were like that. Johnny was rolling through the snow in a suit. And we literally put him into hospital. We gave him pneumonia. It was touch and go, he had to go in and get a whole dose of antibiotics and was sick for a month after.

"Max" examines how Europe sowed the seeds for its own destruction, through the Versailles treaty. Do you think there's a valid argument that the Bush/Blair axis is sowing the seeds for future terrorism?

I think it's too early to judge that kind of thing, but I tell you this - and it's a really interesting point you're making there - terrorism is terrorism, but there is another aspect of terrorism that is often overlooked, which is that you make a prediction about the country or the organism that you seek to terrorise and you make that prediction come true. Osama bin Laden called the West crusaders. At the time that was absolutely not true. Now we're in Baghdad.

Hitler's rise was based on fear and hate and intolerance. These are all things that are prominent in the Western political scene at the moment...

I would be broader than that. I would say that those... One of the things that "Max" tries to do is deconstruct Hitler and also Nazism, which is exactly as you say. The kind of growth hormones of fascism is fear and envy and rage and frustration and those are emotions that none of us are a stranger to. There are two views you can take. You can take the view that there is never going to be a Hitler again. Well, then you can sort of say I made this rather eccentric period piece. But if you think that there could be that kind of person again, then I think we're onto something, don't you?