Is Art Mightier Than War?

John Cusack on Hitler, politics and his new movie 'Max.'

This article was originally published in 2003.

John Cusack's boy-next-door characters have, since the appearance of Lloyd Dobler in "Say Anything," had an obsessive side, usually brought out by the love of a young woman. In his new movie, "Max," Cusack plays the title role with the same urgency, but what's at stake is not the heart of a teenaged beauty, but the fate of civilization. An artist who lost his arm in the First World War, Max Rothman is determined to transform his world by fostering modern art as a gallery owner. The film shows how Max's hopes and life are powerfully determined by a struggling young artist he befriends named Adolph Hitler. Beliefnet talked to Cusack recently about his faith, his politics, and his new movie.

You were raised Catholic, but in your new movie you play Max Rothman, who is Jewish. How did you prepare for the role?
I was raised Catholic until I was old enough, you know, to say no. My father was great friends with [peace activist] Phil Berrigan, who just passed away. So obviously, I was informed by his kind of radical, left-wing, Jesuit mindset.

But growing up, the Irish, the Italians and the Jews, we all hung out together. Those groups seem to get it going pretty well. And research-wise, I did a little work. I read a book by a Yale professor Paul Mendes-Flohr, a history of the different manifestations of German Judaism. Some people saw themselves as Germanic, rather than Jewish, and some saw their identity as Jewish first and Germans second.

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So Max is kind of like me: I was raised Irish Catholic but I don't consider myself Irish Catholic: I consider myself me, an American. Max probably didn't even think of himself as Jewish. He thought of himself as German. That was probably the only naïve thing about him.

Max has just returned from the First World War, and he seems lost. What is he looking for?
He captures that modern spirit you read about in "All Quiet on the Western Front." All these young men who went off with a very romantic vision of war came back totally shattered. It created this hungry, restless, wandering, kind of ghostlike energy. Max wants to recreate the 20th century. Everything his father taught him is wrong. Everything he learned is wrong. We all believed a certain way, he says, and look where it led us. We were in the trenches and we saw horses wearing gas masks. Whatever we did, it didn't work.

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