Music Box (film)

Music Box (film)
Music Box

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Costa-Gavras
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Written by Joe Eszterhas
Starring Jessica Lange
Armin Mueller-Stahl
Frederic Forrest
Music by Philippe Sarde
Cinematography Patrick Blossier
Editing by Joële Van Effenterre
Distributed by TriStar Pictures
Release date(s) December 22, 1989 (1989-12-22)
Running time 124 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $6,263,883

Music Box is a 1989 film that tells the story of a Hungarian-American immigrant who is accused of having been a war criminal. The plot revolves around his daughter, an attorney, who defends him, and her struggle to uncover the truth.

The movie was written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Costa-Gavras. It stars Jessica Lange, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Frederic Forrest, Donald Moffat and Lukas Haas.

It is loosely based on the real life case of John Demjanjuk and, as well, on Joe Eszterhas' own life, since he later discovered that his father was a former Nazi collaborator in Hungary.[1]



Defense attorney Anne Talbot learns that her father, Hungarian immigrant Michael J. Laszlo, is in danger of having his American citizenship revoked. The reasons are that he stands accused of war crimes committed during World War II. He insists that it is a case of mistaken identity. Against the advice of both the prosecutor and her former father-in-law, Harry Talbot, Anne resolves to defend her father. One of her reasons is how deeply her son, Mikey, loves and admires his grandfather.

According to prosecuting attorney Jack Burke of the Office of Special Investigations, Michael Laszlo is not, as he claims, a simple political refugee, regular churchgoer, and family man. Rather, he is "Mishka," the former commander of a death squad linked to the Hungary's Fascist and racist Arrow Cross Party. During Siege of Budapest, Mishka and his unit tortured and murdered scores of Hungarian Jews, Gypsies, and many others with psychopathic glee. To Anne, these allegations are absurd. The affectionate single father who raised her could not possibly have commited such crimes.

In light of the accusations, the city of Chicago is divided. Laszlo's supporters, ranging from friends and family to those who deny the Holocaust, are pitted against those who believe in his guilt and seek to harass him. A photo of Laszlo shielding his grandson from protesters works in his favor. At the same time, the trial puts a great deal of stress on Anne, and she begins to quarrel more with Burke, even going so far as to imply his guilt in the recent death of his wife. Meanwhile, digging into her father's accounts reveals large payments to a fellow Hungarian immigrant named Tibor. Mike claims these were loans which Tibor was unable to repay before his death.

As a denaturalization hearing unfolds, the crimes of "Mishka" are described in gruesome testimony by the few who survived contact with him. As a result, the case pivots on an Arrow Cross identification card that bears Laszlo's name. An expert from the FBI initially confirms its authenticity. Laszlo on the other hand, claims that this is a conspiracy by the People's Republic of Hungary and it's secret police, the ÁVH. Their reasons are retaliation for his protest against the visit of a Hungarian ballet troupe several years earlier.

In rebuttal, Anne locates a KGB defector who testifies about the ability of the Soviet Union to produce similar forgeries and their use to frame anti-communists in the West. The defector further explains that such knowledge was shared with a very interested Hungarian government. This revelation, combined with Anne's throwing into question the reliability of any witness living under an oppressive Communist government, again throws the defendant's guilt into doubt.

At this impasse, Burke announces that there is a witness who can prove that Mike Laszlo and "Mishka" are the same person; due to his medical condition he is incapable of leaving Budapest. Anne, Burke, and the judge travel to Hungary, but Laszlo declines to go, claiming that the Hungarian State will murder him and make it look like an accident. Before Anne leaves, her legal assistant brings more details about the man to whom Laszlo had made payments, revealing that Tibor had died in a hit-and-run car accident and that she believes he was blackmailing Mike Laszlo. She gives Anne his sister's address in Budapest and urges Anne to seek the truth, but Anne shrugs her off.

The night she arrives in Budapest, Anne is visited by a stranger who claims to be a friend of her father. He chats with her for a while, then leaves a box with a hidden folder of documents. The next day at the hospital, after hearing some damning evidence from the witness, Anne produces these documents—signed affidavits made by the witness and stating that a completely different man was "Mishka." In light of this evidence, and despite protests from both Burke and the witness, the Jewish judge dismisses the indictment. Anne, elated, brushes off Burke's accusations that she is living in a fantasy world and begins her trip back home. Riding back to the hotel, she suddenly directs her driver to take her to the address she received from her assistant.

Introducing herself as someone who had known her brother, Tibor, Anne is welcomed warmly by his elderly sister. As they converse, the woman mentions that the only thing of Tibor's that she has is his wallet, sent from America. She produces from it a piece of paper that she does not understand. Anne informs her that it is a pawn shop ticket and the woman implores her to retrieve whatever Tibor pawned and to send it to her, as she has so little by which to remember her brother. As soon as she returns to America, Anne retrieves the item, which turns out to be the titular music box. Anne winds it up and watches it go, taken by its charm. Then, Anne weeps inconsolably as the music box dispenses photos of her father enthusiastically torturing and murdering Jews.

Anne goes to Mikey's birthday party, her first thought being to get her son away from his murderous grandfather. When her father walks into the room, she confronts him. Even in the face of the overwhelming evidence, her father continues to deny his crimes, chalking it up to a conspiracy by the ÁVH. Anne also accuses him of the hit and run which killed Tibor. Calmly, her father responds, "No. He was a friend."

Sickened, Anne calls her father a monster, says that she never wants to see him again, and that she doesn't want him anywhere near Mikey. However, her father calmly explains that his grandson would never believe such things about him. Much to Anne's distress, he then goes directly out to play with Mikey. Anne is then seen typing a letter to Jack Burke and enclosing the damning photos and negatives. Soon after, Anne picks up a newspaper from her doorstep which bears the headline, "Mike Laszlo: War Criminal! Justice Department Releases Atrocity Photos." The film fades out as Anne comforts her son.



This film marks the second collaboration between director Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas after 1988's Betrayed. Both Walter Matthau and Kirk Douglas were in talks with Costa-Gavras to play the part of Mike Laszlo. Ultimately Gavras selected Armin Mueller-Stahl, who had wanted to work with Gavras since being impressed by his work after seeing Missing. Mueller-Stahl, an East-German defector, had difficulty obtaining a U.S. visa. THe reason were that he was suspected of ties to the Stasi.[2]

Principal photography for the film started on location in Chicago, but for later scenes of the film the production was actually moved to Budapest, Hungary, as Gavras wanted authenticity in what he considered some of the key scenes.

Critical reception

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a luke-warm two star review. Among his complaints were that the film was "not about guilt or innocence; it is a courtroom thriller, with all of the usual automatic devices like last-minute evidence and surprise witnesses" and that "Naziism is used only as a plot device, as a convenient way to make a man into a monster without having to spend much time convincing us of it." Foremost was his frustration that little attempt was made to understand Mike Laszlo, and that "the old man, who should be the central character if this movie took itself seriously, is only a pawn." [3]

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone was even more critical of the film, doubting it existed for any purpose other than to get Jessica Lange an Oscar nomination, bluntly stating "real-life tragedy has been used to hype cheap melodrama. It's more than offensive; it's vile." [4]

Caryn James of the New York Times applauded Jessica Lange's performance, but had to admit that "Ms. Lange comes as close to inventing a character out of thin air as any screen actor can. Nothing in Joe Eszterhas's overblown script or in Costa-Gavras's simplistic direction begins to support it. In the end, not even Ms. Lange's profuse energy and intelligence can redeem the film's unremitting shallowness and mediocrity." James ultimately felt that Music Box "finally tells us nothing about wronged innocence or monstrous evil." [5]

All three reviewers commented on the plot similarities between Music Box and Betrayed, the 1988 collaboration between writer Joe Eszterhas and director Costa-Gavras, with the replacement of white supremacists with war criminals and the same predictable formula.

Awards and nominations

See also


External links

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