This past March, I was just about to finish writing about Casablanca and its 70th anniversary, but I wasn’t sure how to bring the article to a close. I decided it was best to take a little break, so I saved my draft, logged out of WordPress, and switched to Google News. That’s when I saw the headline announcing that John Demjanjuk, the retired Cleveland autoworker who had long been accused and convicted of being a Nazi war criminal (nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka death camp), had passed away at the age of 91. Reading about Demjanjuk–yet again–brought back to me–also yet again–the horrors of the Holocaust and helped me put some of the themes of Casablanca into the context of its time. Of course, this many years removed from WWII, we remember the glamour, romance, and intrigue of Casablanca though we likely gloss over the urgency of the times, the desperation of the film’s background characters, the ones who “wait and wait and wait” for safe passage out of Europe, similar to the doomed real life passengers aboard the St. Louis, the so-called Voyage of the Damned, the subject of a 1976 Oscar nominated feature film. Reading about Demjanjuk’s death, for better or worse, provided the inspiration I needed to wrap-up the Casablanca piece–and was just the “sign” I needed to begin writing about another movie, one that I had always intended to write about when I first started this blog. (It just took longer than I thought it would.) That movie is Constantin Costa-Gavras’s Music Box (1989), which borrows its basic premise from the trials of Demjanjuk among other events close to the heart and mind of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.
Music Box (no “The”) tells the story of Ann Talbot, successful Chicago lawyer and first generation American of Hungarian descent, who offers her expertise to what initially appears to be either a clerical error or a case of mistaken identity regarding her father’s application for citizenship, dating back to the period right after Word War II. As Ann and her father (Michael J. Laszlo, aka, Mischka) soon discover, the Hungarian government wants Laszlo extradited, so he can be tried as a war criminal, a Special Section death squad member during the height of the Holocaust. Ann is a crackerjack attorney, and even though she specializes in criminal law, she eventually agrees to take her father’s case; however, as good as she is in the courtroom, she begins to crack under pressure, spending long hours reading horrifying depositions and listening to witness after devastating witness flown in for the trial by the Hungarian government. Because one potential witness is on his deathbed (or thereabouts), the case’s principal players journey all the way to Budapest–where the hits just keep on coming.
Michael’s case is complicated for a number of reasons, including the possibility that his rather public anti-communist activism has made him a target of the Hungarian government (this is, after all, the waning days of the Cold War, so a little paranoia is in order). Additionally, Ann has to contend with fact that her judge is Jewish, and the federal prosecutor might very well be using the case to work through some personal demons of his own. There is yet another twist that includes Ann’s mentor, who just happens to be her old-moneyed ex-father-in-law, a well-heeled die-hard right-winger who, despite his veneer of respectability, is probably dirtier than anyone else in the bunch. He was once an intelligence officer. He might even be a Holocaust-denier.
I’ve always believed that this movie is less about whether Michael J. Laszlo is who he says he is and more about the effect the case has on Ann, the woman who must defend someone whom she loves though that someone might very well be a beast–or might have been a beast at one time. It’s fun to watch Jessica Lange in this role. At that point in her career, Lange was most famous for playing extroverted, high energy (and/or high maintenance) types, such as Frances Farmer and Patsy Cline (brilliant, and Oscar nominated, as both, natch). Ann Talbot is different. She’s affectionate with her family (including her brother and her son, of course), but she lives a lot of her life in her head. Lange’s is a thoughtful, contemplative kind of performance, and all that braininess serves her well in the courtroom where she is quick to pounce on every technical inconsistency, such as reminding the judge about the difference between a Special Section ID card and a photostat of a Special Section ID card. She also seems to relish, in her own quiet way, throwing out a line of apparently misleading questioning, only to take a seemingly harmless response from a witness and use it against him/her. Of course, Ann goes through a number of emotional changes in the film, but even so, Lange modulates those changes so that they’re always consistent with the Ann’s reserved demeanor rather than out-of-character outbursts befitting the proverbial Oscar baiting display. She also gets to speak Hungarian during one particularly startling scene in the Budapest sequence; however, even at the time of the film’s release, the naysayers were carping that Lange had played one “drabbed-down” character too many, and Music Box was just more of the same. Well, I respectfully disagree. Lange had moments of true glamour in both Frances and Sweet Dreams (the Cline biopic), as well as her gorgeously fluttery Oscar winning role as the pampered soap opera star in Tootsie and even the seriously flawed Everybody’s All-American (1988), in which she portrayed a Southern beauty queen. Okay, so Lange’s short, curly, brunette wig in Music Box is not especially flattering. I get it; at the same time, her wardrobe is anything but “dowdy,” “dumpy” or any of those other judgmental terms. Ann Talbot is a successful lawyer, and she dresses like one.(Even better, reds and earth tones are definitely flattering colors on her.) She always looks professional, which is how she should look. She need not look like a movie star.
Of course, Music Box is most obviously a Holocaust film. Screenwriter Eszterhas and director Costa-Gavras do not back away from the atrocities of the era, but rather than offer graphic flashbacks, the horrors are relayed through the testimonies of the survivors with their worn, weary faces, and pained voices: women with a lifetime of rage, men still in touch with their shattered youth(s). Besides the specifics of the Holocaust, there are a couple of equally intriguing themes. The first of these is the idea that as much as we love someone (father, mother, spouse etc.), we might not really know who that person is no matter how much we think we think–we presume–to. This realization can be devastating when that someone is, indeed, one of our parents, as some of my friends and I have discovered as we’ve gotten older. Boy, could I tell you some stories. Maybe we idolize our parents, or parent, as Ann does, and cannot accept the fact they are human and as much a product of their upbringing as we are of ours. Everyone has a skeleton or two in a closet somewhere, and this does not necessarily mean that our parents are evil or have committed atrocities against humanity, like Laszlo is accused of doing, but all of us have likely made choices that seemed right for us at the time but later seem peculiar–or worse–in the cold light of day. That brings up another theme: the way we can compartmentalize our actions–so much so that it’s hard to believe we have done certain things in our lives. Of course, if we’re lucky, we all do foolish things as kids, but then we develop a conscience and somehow divorce ourselves from our previous actions, knowing full well that we would never do–could not possibly do–something that we did with ease without a second thought when we were younger. Of course, some people never develop that conscience, exactly, although even then they’re probably good at rationalizing their behavior. They might not say, “It’s not me. I could never do such a thing,” but they would probably be fine with, “Yes, it would be wrong for you to do such a thing, but it’s not wrong for me in this case because…so screw you.” This, of course, takes us back to the Holocaust or any other act of torture and/or barbarism. As detailed in the book, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture by John Conroy, the “grunts” in these types of situations, the lower level facilitators who actually perform heinous acts of torture and murder, often portray themselves as victims as well, arguing that what they did was not necessarily of their own choosing, but that they were just following orders–from the real barbarians–in order to save their own lives. This idea is also prevalent in Kate Winslet’s Oscar winning, The Reader. This is what is known as a lose/lose situation.
Okay, so, yes, Lange earned her fifth Oscar nod for Music Box, which is actually quite a good thing: it speaks to the power of her performance, given that the film was pretty much a box office dud, a relatively inexpensive dud, but nothing even close to a hit. All things considered, I’m even okay with Lange losing that year, knowing that her competition included winner Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy, Isabelle Adjani in Camille Claudel, and Michelle Pfeiffer, delectably entertaining if ridiculously over-hyped, in The Fabulous Baker Brothers. I know it’s routine at this point to dismiss Tandy’s Driving Miss Daisy, but I actually adore the movie, and even though I might have preferred another actress to win the Oscar that year, I have no problem with Tandy’s victory. Her performance was solid gold to me, and I think she resisted many of the sentimental traps in the material. Likewise, Lange’s slot among the final five could have easily been filled by actresses in movies with higher profiles starting with Andie MacDowell (sex, lies, and videotape) and Sally Field (Steel Magnolias) near the top of the heap, followed by the likes of, say, Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally or even Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses (not to mention some of my fave performances in lesser known films: Holly Hunter in Miss Firecracker and Isabella Rossellini in Cousins). So there. (To clarify: MacDowell, Field, Ryan, and Turner were all Golden Globe nominees as were Tandy, Pfeiffer, Lange, and even Pauline Collins–in Shirley Valentine–the fifth Oscar nominee.)
As satisfying as Lange’s nomination is, it doesn’t take away from the sting of the movie being shut-out in every other category, and this is a movie with a lot to offer. For me, the most glaring omission is the screenplay by Joe Eszterhas. Of course, by now it’s also routine to portray Eszterhas as one of the greatest hacks in Hollywood history. The former reporter turned screenwriter broke into movies with Sylvester Stallone’s F.I.S.T. in 1978, and then followed with the likes of Flashdance (1983), a movie that many critics find/found too easy to hate, and Jagged Edge (1985), a courtroom thriller starring Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges that just rubbed me the wrong way even though it was extremely popular with audiences. Eszterhas also wrote 1988’s Betrayed, with Debra Winger and Tom Berenger in a drama that purports to show the underpinnings of the white separatist movement; Betrayed was the first collaboration between the writer and director Costa-Gavras. Later, a few years after Music Box, Eszterhas scored a record breaking paycheck–a cool three million–for Basic Instinct, a spec script about a serial killer on the prowl in San Francisco. As sensational as all get-out, the movie made a star, however briefly, of Sharon Stone. The rest of Eszterhas’s resume is more of the same: Sliver (also with Sharon Stone), Jade (might as well be Basic Instinct/Jagged Edge Part II), and Showgirls (the flop that at the time made Flashdance look like great art, now considered a camp classic). By all accounts, Eszterhas is a stubborn, quite outspoken SOB, and he has made tons of enemies over the years, recently engaging in a war of words with no less a prime crackpot than Mel Gibson; therefore, it’s not surprising, given the preponderance of evidence, that members of the Academy never felt like recognizing Eszterhas though that is regrettable in the case of Music Box, which rates high on my scale of cinema’s best written movies. Ever.
What’s so great about Music Box? Well, as I have told many, many folks just as they sit down to watch it for the first time, there is not a wasted word in the whole thing. Everything, that is, every word, counts. Of course, any good screenplay should be tight, with little or no flab or show-offy flourishes, but that is not always the case. In other words, Eszterhas has made a movie for adults, and he trusts that his audience is capable, more than capable, of listening and paying attention to each and every word, each and every little detail. If viewers tune out for as little as a nanosecond, they’ll miss out, or be seriously confused, when all the pieces start falling into place–when they do, they do so, as the old saying goes, quick, fast, and in a hurry, showing little or no mercy. This script is something like an impressionistic painting, especially one by Georges Seurat: Eszsterhas has a lot on his mind, but connecting all the dots for audiences isn’t one of them though I can imagine that some viewers might find some of the script too obvious. It is, and it isn’t. I guess it’s a matter of taste. As previously mentioned, Eszterhas weaves a lot of thematic material throughout this tale, and one of things that makes it so intriguing is, again, all that Cold War paranoia, the idea that Laszlo could very well be guilty of something while at the same time be framed by Communist officials who do not even trust the truth when it works in their favor. Naturally, I cannot give away all the twists and turns, but let me add a few more tidbits. First, this is a powerful film though it rarely trades in loud “a-ha” moments that are common place in thrillers, mysteries, and courtroom dramas. Also, and I say this with all the kindness in the world: those viewers with ADD and/or a reluctance to engage their critical thinking skills might want to proceed with caution. (For the record, the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year went to Tom Schulman [Dead Poets Society], who won over the likes of Steve Soderbergh [sex, lies, and videotape], and Spike Lee [Do the Right Thing].)
Eszterhas draws upon real life in more ways than one. Of course, he borrows liberally from the Demjanjuk case; moreover, he even has one of his characters comment on the similarities between the two. First, the real Demjanjuk and the fictional Laszlo were/are questioned because of discrepancies in their applications for citizenship. Additionally, one of the most obvious parallels is the matter of the identification card. In the 1980s, during Demjanjuk’s first trial, much scrutiny was placed on the authenticity of the ID card that purported to show Demjanjuk as a member of the so-called Special Section though the defense’s claims were ultimately dismissed. In Music Box, Lange’s Talbot and Frederic Forrest’s Jack Burke dicker repeatedly over such a card, each one topping the other in a high stakes game of “My Expert is Better than Yours.” The accuracy of the witness statements, decades after the fact, is something else that Eszterhas draws upon in his fictionalized version–and, as it turns, out, this was also a crucial development in the Demjanjuk case after it was revealed that another man had been identified conclusively as Ivan the Terrible, which did not lessen the case against Demjanjuk as a war criminal in general. It’s complicated. Also complicated is Ezsterhas’s own history. He was actually born in Hungary near the end of the war and spent some time in a refugee camp before moving to America with his family in the early 1950s. According to a report in the New York Times that appeared as Music Box premiered, Ezsterhas heard horror stories about the Holocaust from his father, a Catholic priest and newspaper editor, as well as actual Holocaust survivors. As the writer explained in the article, even after he came to America, he was still haunted by the stories and the possibility that members of his own family might have actively participated in such despicable acts, a feeling shared by a woman he met many years after the fact in San Francisco. It was this lingering doubt/guilt/suspicion, along with the Demjanjuk trial, that prompted him to write his film though there is still a twist or two. In 1990, the year AFTER Music Box‘s American theatrical run, Eszterhas was shocked to find that his own dad was accused of writing anti-semitic tracts during the 1930s, including “Nemzet Politka” (“National Policy”), in which he compared Jews to parasites. Another article in the New York Times likens the piece to the Hungarian version of Mein Kampf. Whoah!
Of course, Eszterhas and Lange aren’t the whole show. Certainly, Greece’s acclaimed director Constantin Costa-Gavras knows his way around a political thriller with human rights at its core. His 1969
Z was the first film to be Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language film in the same year (it won the latter); likewise, 1982’s Missing, the fact based account of the disappearance of an American journalist (Charles Horman) and America’s involvement in a Chilean coup back in the 1970s, earned nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Jack Lemmon), and Actress (Sissy Spacek), besides claiming the Golden Palm at the 1982 Cannes fest. In Music Box, the director works crisply and efficiently: the material is dense, so the best thing to do is put the camera in the right place, make sure the actors are well lit, and keep moving. It’s not ostentatious film-making by any stretch, but it’s smoothly professional and effective. One of my favorite bits in any movie I have ever seen is the transition that takes Ann from the hustle and bustle of her own apparently thriving, if cluttered, office to the more calming, richly and studiously appointed, spacious environs of her ex-father-in-law’s practice. The actual establishing shot only last a few seconds, but it says everything about this man, his wealth, his position–and, most importantly, how he views himself. The director has a first-rate group of collaborators, including cinematographer Patrick Blossier and composer Philippe Sarde. The early portions of the film, set in wintry Chicago, are cool and crystal clear, a highlight being a scene with Ann and her dad in a cemetery (visiting the grave of the long deceased mother/wife). Once the action switches to Budapest, the images are warmer, dappled in sunlight as though the truth is near. Sarde’s score is, in a word, intriguing. There’s something Old World about it though it’s not overdone; it’s more like a subtle, even sneaky, undercurrent that only occasionally draws attention to itself.
Even with all this technical excellence, Costa-Gavras still knows that the material needs skillful performances if it is to truly capture the imagination of audiences, and, again, there is every reason to marvel at the caliber of work on display. The key to the entire enterprise is German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, who portrays Lazslo. At the very least, Lazslo is a proud man though he often seems at odds with himself. On one hand, he’s scarcely able to control his own emotions at times; on the other hand, he’s smart enough to understand that everything he says and does is being closely monitored–even by his own daughter–so he frequently evaluates the way he presents himself and adjusts what he thinks he can. It’s not quite a true poker face, and I guess that’s what makes it interesting. Again, no Oscar nod for this actor in this role, but he scored one for his more obvious–almost cartoony–work in 1996’s Shine. Even better, in this viewer’s humble opinion, is Donald Moffatt as Ann’s dryly cynical ex-father-in-law. This tall distinguished actor has appeared in everything from Murder She Wrote to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; he played Walt Whitman in the latter, btw. He’s even played the President of the United States twice: the fictional prez in 1994’s A Clear and Present Danger, and Lyndon B. Johnson in The Right Stuff (1983). In Music Box, he delivers every line with precision, always close to making a jab but layering it with calculated sincerity just in case he hits a nerve. The other standouts are the witnesses, especially Sol Frieder (as Istvan Boday), Michael Shilo (as Geza Vamos), and Elzbieta Czyzewska (as Melinda Kalman; see sidebar). The director puts the camera right up in these performers’ faces, and it’s magic of a kind, so naturalistic are the performances. I’ve seen these same performers in many other things, a lot of TV reruns, mainly, and I’m always thrown off-guard when I see them out of context, playing roles that are entirely different. Of course, that’s their job as skilled actors, but in Music Box, they have the ring of truth and/or authenticity. I’m not too much for second person pronouns, but I think after you see this movie, you’ll be willing to swear you’re watching actual Holocaust survivors. (Only one of the pivotal Hungarian characters is actually played by a Hungarian actor; okay, maybe two–but you’d never guess.) Another interesting casting choice is James Zagel as Judge Irwin Silver. In real life, Zagel, who is listed in the credits as J.S. Block, is actually a Chicago based federal judge; he recently presided over the trial of former Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich. I like the chutzpah, for lack of a better role, this man brings to the part of a judge who seems like he’s seen and heard enough before the trial is even seriously underway. Of course, not everyone in the cast is 100% tip-top. Frederic Forrest, as Ann’s courtroom adversary, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce, as Ann’s investigator and confidante, both suffer through thankless roles. The performances aren’t terrible, but they’re not exactly riveting either as they pretty much function as a.) members of a Greek chorus, b.) the voices of reason, or c.) Ann’s conscience. Well, at least they’re committed.
Wow! I’ve written over four thousand words, and I still haven’t answered two pressing questions: 1. How does it all end? 2. What’s the significance of the title? First things first. Well, there’s no way I’m going to divulge the ending of the movie right here, except I will say that the ending packs a wallop, and Eszterhas sets it up brilliantly. It’s so “literary” that it’s worthy of a whole blog piece in itself, so pay close attention early on, as early as the fourth scene, or so (during Ann and her father’s first exchange with Forrest’s Burke), and you’ll find that the seeds have already been planted. Finally, what about that cryptic title? On one hand, it could very well be called Pandora’s Box, right? At any rate, music boxes are a recurring motif throughout the film. There is one prominently displayed in the opening credits, and another one in Ann’s ex-father-in-law’s office. Listen carefully to what he says just as Ann is opening the music box. Beautiful. I’ll stop here. As much fun as it is to write about this incredible movie, the real satisfaction comes from actually watching it unfold onscreen at its own steady pace. That’s the power of movies.
Thanks for your consideration…
BBC News obit of John Demjanjuk:
Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People at Amazon:
Joe Eszterhas discusses his inspiration for Music Box:
Joe Eszterhas on his father’s anti-Semitic past:
Huffington Post profile of Judge James Zagel:
New York Times obituary of Elzbieta Czyzewska:
More on Elzbieta Czyżewska:
Jessica Lange’s Oscar Nominations (all for Best Actress except where noted):
1. Tootsie (Best Supporting Actress, 1982) w
2. Frances (1982)
3. Country (1984)
4. Sweet Dreams (1985)
5. Music Box (1989)
6. Blue Sky (1994) w