Music Box (film)

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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
Edited by Joële Van Effenterre
Distributed by TriStar Pictures
Release dates
  • 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. 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."[1]p.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 Holocaust-related 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 a death squad linked to the Arrow Cross Party. During the Siege of Budapest, Mishka's unit tortured and murdered scores of Hungarian Jews, Gypsies, and their Gentile protectors with psychopathic glee. To Anne, these allegations are absurd. The loving single father who raised her could not possibly have committed such crimes.

In light of the accusations, the people of Chicago are divided. Laszlo's supporters, ranging from friends and family to Holocaust deniers, are pitted against those who believe in his guilt and seek to harass him. Preparing for her father's denaturalization hearing puts a great deal of stress on Anne. She begins arguing with Burke, who claims that her father's love for his family is a carefully crafted alibi. Insulted, Anne accuses Burke of murdering his recently deceased wife.

Meanwhile, her father's accounts reveals large payments to a fellow Hungarian named Tibor Zoldan. Her father claims these were loans to help a destitute Zoldan 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 those who survived contact with them. In addition, the case pivots on an Arrow Cross identification card that bears the name, "Miklos Laszlo". An FBI agent initially confirms its authenticity. Her father claims that this is a conspiracy by Hungary's Communist Government and its secret police, the ÁVH. 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 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 ÁVH. This revelation, combined with Anne's questioning the reliability of witnesses living under a Communist police state, again throws Burke's case into 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 Zoldan's sister Melinda and urges an annoyed Anne to pay her a visit.

At her Budapest hotel, Anne is visited by a government official 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 affidavits in which the witness stated that three completely different men were "Mishka."

Despite Burke's protests, Judge Silver dismisses the Prosecution's case. Burke tells Anne she is living in a fantasy world. He urges her to visit the bridge where Mishka's unit threw their victims into the Danube River. Anne screams that her father is innocent. But later she directs her driver to take her to the bridge. After contemplating the scene, Anne travels to the address of Melinda Zoldan.

Introducing herself as someone who knew Tibor, Anne is welcomed warmly. Melinda 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, Melinda implores Anne to retrieve whatever Tibor pawned and mail it to her. Before leaving, a horrified Anne realizes that, like Mishka, Tibor was also involved with the Arrow Cross.

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 the music box dispenses a set of black-and-white photographs. They depict her youthful father torturing and murdering Jews while dressed in an Arrow Cross uniform.

At Mikey's birthday party, Anne confronts her father, accusing him of being Mishka and of murdering Tibor Zoldan. He denies all, claiming that the ÁVH has poisoned his daughter against him.

Anne tells her father that, since he once murdered Jewish children of the same age as his grandson, neither she nor Mikey will ever see him again. Her father calmly explains that Mikey loves him and will never believe anything bad about him. To Anne's horror, he then goes out to play with his grandson. Anne is later seen typing a letter to Jack Burke, saying that she went to the bridge. As she places it in an envelope, she encloses Tibor's photographs and negatives.

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 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, as he was suspected of ties to the Stasi.[2]

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

Critical reception[edit]

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."[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[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Joe Esztherhas (2008). Crossbearer: a memoir of faith. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-38596-5. OCLC 213300974. 
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Chicago Sun-Times review
  4. ^ Music Box review
  5. ^ New York Times review
  6. ^ "Berlinale: 1990 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2011-03-20. 

External links[edit]