A look at life before the Reich

Usually affable and laid back, the very embodiment of Hollywood cool, John Cusack seems uncharacteristically edgy this afternoon. He enters the room like a fugitive in a film noir detective thriller, twitchy, suspicious. The black shirt, black slacks and haze of cigarette smoke complete the image of a hounded man.

“So what did you think of the flick?” he demands more than asks.

This is obviously not the Cusack of “Being John Malkovich” and “High Fidelity,” or even “Con Air” and “Serendipity.” That Cusack can scoot easily between hip indie productions and formulaic studio fare; that Cusack carries the world in his hip pocket. This one expects the sky to come crashing down.

Little wonder. He’s just made a grim little film that even his staunchest fans will find tough going. “Max” stars the 36-year-old actor as Max Rothman, a one-armed art dealer in post-World War I Munich. Rothman’s new discovery? A ranting war vet named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). Reviewing Hitler’s battle sketches, Rothman finds “an authentic new voice” who’s “just scratching the surface.”

Potential backers were less kind to the original “Max” script. They showed interest, then they didn’t. Which is why it took three years to raise the money ($10 million), set up production in Budapest, and pull together a cast and crew that would work for virtually no money. “Everybody was terrified of it,” Cusack recalls. “But we kept it going. The actor, producer, crew salaries are up there on the screen. It was an act of real passion.”

Throughout his almost 20 years of stardom, Cusack has specialized in fast talkers, some lovelorn, some loathsome. Rothman felt like a departure. “He’s a man crushed by war who’s trying to reconstruct himself … a very progressive, modernist spirit,” observes the actor.

Almost as knowledgeable about music and art as it he is about film and experimental theater, Cusack found himself drawn to the film’s Weimar Republic setting.

“I’ve always been interested in this period … always fascinated by how fertile Germany was before politics and economic ruin entered into the equation,” Cusack says. “How did a nation of poets and thinkers become a nation of judges and hangmen in the period between the wars? What caused that shift to the far right?”

Written and directed by Menno Meyjes, who received an Oscar nomination for “The Color Purple,” “Max” is nothing if not ambitious. On one level it’s a horror story, on another a black comedy shot through with gallows humor, and on yet another level an avant-garde work that melds Brechtian stagecraft with the visual style of George Grosz and other German artists of the interwar period.

“The idea was to look at Hitler through the prism of art,” Cusack explains. “It’s not a new idea, but I don’t think people have experienced it quite this way before. Hitler did sniff around the modern art world, cubism and all those things. He was repulsed by their anti-war message, but he understood the power of the medium.”

Why, then, did he reject art for fascist politics?

“He couldn’t do what was required of an artist, which was to honestly express himself. He didn’t have the courage to look deeply at the seeds of envy, hatred, fear, sexual frustration. He took the coward’s way out: He started hating other people.”

Hitler has been played by a number of great actors, including Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins. And usually the star’s disgust for the role shows as he turns the dictator into a raving maniac easy to dismiss as Grosz-like caricature. Meyjes and Cusack wanted Taylor’s characterization to be different, more three dimensional.

“By making Hitler human – which I’m sorry to say he was – you have to deal with him,” Cusack says. “If he’s not human, he’s beyond human reckoning. He’s not culpable. You’re saying he didn’t have or make choices.”

As logical as this argument sounds, it doesn’t placate those who believe that showing even a sliver of decency in the young Hitler somehow validates him and is, therefore, dangerous. Prior to its release, “Max” was attacked in press releases and e-mail by the Jewish Defense League, Cusack says.

“Talk about regressive! These people attacked our film without even seeing it. For some in the JDL it’s uncomfortable to think of this man as a human being. It’s easier to think of him as Grendel or as an alien transported from another planet to rule Earth.”

As high as he is on “Max” and other offbeat assignments, Cusack isn’t about to quit mainstream Hollywood. Already this year he has two studio films in the hopper: Columbia’s “Identity,” a spooky murder mystery co-starring Ray Liotta, and Warner Bros.’ “The Runaway Jury,” a John Grisham adaptation with Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman.

“I have a pretty good thing going,” he allows. “I can do films that are more mainstream so I can do the films that I love. I’m very proud of ‘Max.’ I think it’s the most challenging picture I’ve ever done. If it gets recognized with an Oscar nomination that would be great. But if it doesn’t, I have no doubt that in five, six, 10 years people will view it as a serious piece.”

Cusack, who amazingly has never been nominated for an Oscar, dismisses such recognition as “faddish,” political, tied to how ambitious an advertising campaign you mount.

“Oscars don’t have any bearing on how films are remembered,” he says. “It’s the films that have resonance for people that are remembered. Their value accrues over the years.”