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The past is present

This year's North Carolina Jewish Film Festival is an appealing brew of the international and the local. New films from major directors are here, as well as ones by emerging artists. There are films about the Southern Jewish experience, and some films with fresh angles on the Shoah. It's a testament to the diversity and strength of this year's program that there are three opening night films, and none of them is Invincible, Werner Herzog's first narrative feature in a decade.

Instead, the festival will kick off Saturday night with Max, a film which was released in larger markets late last year. The year is 1918, the city is Munich and the film traces the relationship of two art lovers--the fictitious art dealer Max Rothman and the all-too-historical Adolf Hitler, then an enraged aspiring artist.

Rothman (John Cusack) was once a painter, but he lost his arm in the war. Now, with the assistance of his wealthy wife, he's become a cheerleader for modernism, turning a warehouse into a gallery and promoting the new art of Max Ernst and George Grosz. Very reluctantly, he takes an interest in young Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor), a starving, shell-shocked soldier who carries a portfolio of well-drafted but anodyne watercolors.

Rothman and Hitler had seen action together in the fearsome trenches of Ypres, so it is from pity and sympathy that Rothman takes Hitler's art on consignment. Hitler, meanwhile, can't sort out his feelings for his benefactor, who has managed to forge ahead in the art world, even maintaining a fetching mistress to go along with his lovely family.

Writer and director Menno Meyjes takes several approaches to exploring the origins of Hitler's dementia: his sufferings in the trenches, his poverty, his horror of sex and body fluids, and his inability to find a suitable artistic voice in the disillusioned post-war world. However, it's apparently an impossible task to present Hitler as a human being, and Noah Taylor opts instead for an unsurprising portrait of the future dictator as a sweaty, lisping and jaundiced ferret. "I am the new avant-garde," he screeches, with spittle flying everywhere.

This film tackles a good deal more than can be comfortably dramatized. Consequently, much of Max is taken up with dialectical speechifying and excruciatingly obvious symbolism, as when Hitler stands trembling before a canvas, trying somehow to express himself in the new modernist language. Images fail him, so he settles instead for words: "Art + Politics = Power."

But Hitler did indeed find a voice as an artist, as the film acknowledges. Like a good modernist, he appropriated a symbol from antiquity, inverted it against a white background and gave it new meaning. In making the swastika his own, he branded his movement in classic 20th century fashion. Upon seeing Hitler's clean, futuristic designs, Rothman mistakes them for mere art. "This belongs in a gallery," he enthuses. Exactly.

The film's ending is a bit of bludgeoning irony on the level of O Henry, but the post-script is history. Hitler takes his visions to the streets, and Max ends up being an argument for keeping art safely in museums.

Max will stick around in general release after the film festival, but this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. will be the only local screening for Amen, a new film from Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing). Costa-Gavras has spent his life making films about right wing terror in its various forms, and here he returns to the source: Nazi Germany. The film takes on the true story of chemist Kurt Gerstein, who invented a substance called Zyklon B, which he intended for use as a water purifier for the troops. To his horror, he discovers that huge quantities are being shipped to internment camps for use against Jews.

The film's real target, however, is the cynical indifference of the Vatican. Gerstein, a Protestant, seeks out the assistance of a young priest (Matthieu Kassovitz, best known for Amelie). With increasing desperation, they petition the Holy See in Rome for papal intervention, which will not be forthcoming. Although this film is relentless and unsurprising, it makes a powerful case for the cowardice and complicity of the Vatican. Costa-Gavras also makes frequent and haunting use of freight trains, with loaded cars going one way and empty cars going another.

There are a couple of other big names at the festival. Kedma, from veteran Israeli director Amos Gitai, is an ironic retelling of the post-war conquest of Palestine that is executed so clumsily that it is entirely possible to mistake the film for an endorsement of Zionist aggression. Elsewhere in the program is Werner Herzog's Invincible, starring Tim Roth, that tells the true story of a Jewish circus strongman who hides in plain sight during the Shoah.

The young documentary filmmaker Brian Bain provides a welcome bit of sunny relief with Shalom Y'all, his genial, hour-long tour of the surprising and complicated history of Judaism in the South. His film is light and upbeat, and maybe too much so. But, after the bleakness of the narrative features, one might be grateful that Bain chooses to elide such notorious and threatening episodes as the 1915 lynching of Jewish factory owner Leo Frank in Atlanta and the rise of David Duke in Louisiana. (Bain will be present to discuss his work after the Sunday screening at 2 p.m.)

Other lighter diversions include two exceedingly promising documentaries: Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots and Kinky Friedman: Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso, a study of the celebrated writer and country musician. And finally, fans of Audtry Tatou (Amelie) will get to see her in God is Great and I'm Not. EndBlock

The North Carolina Jewish Film Festival runs Feb. 22-24 at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. For more information visit www.carolinatheatre.org/ncjff

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