Music Box (film)

Music Box is a 1989 American crime drama 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.

Music Box
Theatrical release poster
Directed byCosta-Gavras
Produced byIrwin Winkler
Written byJoe Eszterhas
Music byPhilippe Sarde
CinematographyPatrick Blossier
Edited byJoële Van Effenterre
Distributed byTriStar Pictures
Release date
  • December 22, 1989 (1989-12-22)
Running time
124 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$6,263,883

The film was written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Costa-Gavras. It stars Jessica Lange, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Frederic Forrest, Donald Moffat and Lukas Haas. The film won the Golden Bear at the 40th Berlin International Film Festival.[1]

It is loosely based on the real life case of John Demjanjuk and, as well, on Joe Eszterhas' own life. Eszterhas learned at age 45 that his father, Count István Esterházy, had concealed his wartime involvement in Hungary's Fascist and militantly racist Arrow Cross Party. According to Eszterhas, his father, "organized book burnings and had cranked out the vilest anti-Semitic propaganda imaginable."[2]:201 After this discovery, Eszterhas severed all contact with his father, never reconciling before István's death.


Chicago defense attorney Anne Talbot learns that her father, Hungarian immigrant Michael J. Laszlo, is in danger of having his U.S. citizenship revoked. The reasons are that he stands accused of war crimes. He insists that it is a case of mistaken identity. Against the advice of her former father-in-law, corporate attorney Harry Talbot, Anne resolves to defend her father in court. 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 an Arrow Cross death squad. During the Siege of Budapest, Mishka's unit sadistically tortured and murdered scores of Hungarian Jews, Roma, and their Gentile protectors. To Anne, these allegations are absurd. The loving single father who raised her could not possibly have committed such crimes.

Later, Jack Burke tells Anne that her father has no conscience, zero empathy, and that his love for his family is a façade. An enraged Anne replies by accusing Burke of murdering his recently deceased wife.

Meanwhile, her father's accounts reveal large payments to a fellow Hungarian immigrant named Tibor Zoldan. Her father claims these were loans to help a destitute friend and which he was unable to repay before his death.

As the hearing unfolds before a Jewish judge named Irwin Silver, the crimes of Mishka's unit are described in grisly testimony by the few who survived contact with them. All the witnesses identify Anne's father as the man who tortured them. Equally damning is an Arrow Cross identification card that bears his photograph and the name, "Laszlo Miklos." An FBI agent initially confirms its authenticity. Her father claims that this is all a frame-up by Hungary's then Communist government and its secret police, the ÁVO. He says that it is retaliation for his protest against the U.S. tour of a Hungarian ballet troupe several years earlier.

Anne locates a Soviet defector who testifies about the KGB's program to produce flawless forgeries of such documents to frame anti-Communists in the West. The defector further explains that this technique was shared with every secret police service in the Soviet Bloc. He explains that the Hungarian ÁVO was "very interested" in this tactic. This revelation, combined with Anne's questioning the reliability of witnesses who still live under a police state, throws Burke's case into serious doubt.

Burke then announces that there is a witness who can testify that Michael Laszlo is "Mishka." Due to his medical problems, however, he is incapable of leaving Budapest. Anne, Burke, and Judge Silver travel to Hungary. Anne's father refuses, claiming that the Communists will assassinate him if he returns. Before her departure, Anne's legal assistant brings more details about Tibor Zoldan, who died in a hit-and-run car accident. She further declares "It feels like Tibor Zoldan was blackmailing your father." She gives Anne the address of Tibor's sister Magda.

At her Budapest hotel, Anne is visited by a mysterious man who claims to be a friend of her father. He leaves a box with a hidden folder of documents. The next day, after hearing the damning testimony of the witness, Anne produces the documents — signed past affidavits in which the witness had identified three completely different men as "Mishka."

Despite the pleading of Burke and the witness, Judge Silver dismisses the prosecution's case. A devastated Burke tells Anne that, while it is too late to save the victims, he thinks that it is important to remember what happened to them. He accuses Anne of living in a fantasy world and urges her to visit the bridge where Mishka threw his victims into the Danube River. At the time, the Red Army was storming Berlin and the Second World War was effectively over, yet Hungarians were still massacring their Jewish countrymen. An infuriated Anne screams "Some Hungarians! Not my father!"

As Anne's local guide is driving her back to her hotel, they casually pass through Széchenyi Lánchíd, which is the bridge mentioned several times earlier in the court testimonies as the place of Mishka's executions. Anne asks the driver to stop so she can have a walk. After looking down on the river and seeing the place of the atrocities, Anne takes a cab to Magda Zoldan's apartment.

Anne introduces herself saying she knew Tibor, so Magda welcomes her warmly and mentions that the only thing she has of Tibor's is his wallet, sent to her by the Chicago Police Department. She produces from it a pawn shop ticket. Saying that she has little else to remember her brother, Magda implores Anne to retrieve whatever Tibor pawned and mail it to her. Before leaving, a horrified Anne sees a picture of young Tibor with a characteristic scar on his left face, and realizes he had been Mischka's Arrow Cross partner in the atrocities, also mentioned several times in the testimonies.

Back in Chicago, Anne visits the pawn shop and retrieves Tibor's music box. Anne winds it up and watches it go, taken in by its charm. Then, Anne sobs inconsolably as the music box dispenses a set of old black-and-white photographs. They depict her youthful father in an Arrow Cross uniform -- sadistically torturing and murdering Jewish men, women, and children.

At a party at Harry Talbot's mansion to celebrate the dismissal of the case, Anne confronts her father, accusing him of being Mishka and of running down Tibor Zoldan with his car. With bottomless self-pity, her father laments that "the Communists" have poisoned his daughter against him. Visibly sickened, Anne asks her father why he cannot just tell her the truth.

In the film's climax, Anne tells her father that she does not ever want herself or Mikey to ever see him again. Her father calmly explains that Mikey will never believe her. As Anne watches in silent horror, "Mishka" goes out to play with his grandson.

Anne is then seen typing a letter to Jack Burke, saying that she went to the Danube. She encloses Tibor Zoldan's photographs and negatives in the envelope.

Anne picks up a newspaper with a front-page headline: "Mike Laszlo: War Criminal! Justice Department Releases Atrocity Photos." The film fades out as Anne stops Mikey from going to school and sits down to talk to him.



This film marked 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 craft after seeing Missing. Mueller-Stahl, an East-German defector, had difficulty obtaining a U.S. visa, as he was suspected of ties to the Stasi.[3]

Jessica Lange, who is usually a devotée of method acting, whereby you live as the character you're playing, chose to approach her character in Music Box differently because "there was nothing in my own experiences of betrayal, disappointment and heartbreak that could compare to the character's." Instead she "tried to approach it as a child approaches a game of make-believe. I did do some research into the character's Hungarian background and I read a lot of books about the Holocaust but ultimately I relied on my own imagination. There was an ease to working this way, an effortlessness."[4]

Principal photography for the film started on location in Chicago, then moved to Budapest, Hungary, as Gavras wanted authenticity in some of the key Hungarian scenes.

The final moments of the film feature a song by Márta Sebestyén, Mária altatója.

Critical reception

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a lukewarm 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 "Nazism 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."[5]

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."[6]

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 felt that Music Box "finally tells us nothing about wronged innocence or monstrous evil."[7]

Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was complimentary of the film; according to the New York Times he "found it very moving...a welcome addition to the cinematic literature of the Holocaust." Wiesel stated that "The television series 'Holocaust' was kitsch; this is not. This is a good work of art, a good work of sensitizing viewers."[8]

Awards and nominations

See also


  1. "Berlinale: 1990 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2011-03-20.
  2. Joe Esztherhas (2008). Crossbearer: a memoir of faith. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-38596-5. OCLC 213300974.
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-27. Retrieved 2009-05-01.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. Amy Longsdorf (1990-01-19). "Unglamorous Role Was 'Music' to Jessica Lange's Ears". Retrieved 2018-08-23.
  5. White, Anath. "Music Box Movie Review & Film Summary (1990) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved 2017-06-30.
  6. "Movie Review". 2017-06-19. Retrieved 2017-06-30.
  7. James, Caryn (1989-12-25). "Movie Review - - Review/Film; 'Music Box,' on Innocence, Evil and the Holocaust". Retrieved 2017-06-30.
  8. Paul Chutkow (1989-12-24). "From the 'Music Box' Emerges the Nazi Demon". New York Times. Retrieved 2018-08-20.
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