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Music box poster
Music Box
★★★☆☆
Theater cinema

One of the prestige pictures of ‘89 that’s been largely forgotten, Music Box is a terrific hybrid of family drama, courtroom thriller, and holocaust history. Jessica Lang plays a Chicago defence attorney who learns that her father, a Hungarian immigrant (wonderfully portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl), has been accused of war crimes. When he assures her it is a simple case of mistaken identity, she decides to defend her father in court against the advice of her ex-father-in-law (Donald Moffat). During her investigation and her examination of witnesses, she must confront the prosecution's case that her father is not the loving family man who raised her and her son (Lukas Haas) but the heartless former commander of a notorious death squad in Budapest. The accusations seem absurd to her but the more she uncovers the less sure of her defence she becomes. 

The picture is a solidly plotted procedural based loosely on the lawsuits brought against John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American accused of crimes against humanity. Legal cases surrounding Demjanjuk's participation in the Holocaust, where he served as a guard at Nazi extermination camps, began during the 1970s and continued until his death in 2012. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas combined the first cases brought against Demjanjuk with his own experience of learning, in his mid-40s, that his father, Count István Esterházy, had concealed his wartime involvement in Hungary's Fascist Arrow Cross Party. Eszterhas disowned his father after discovering that the Count unabashedly produced horrendous anti-Semitic propaganda before and during WWII, and he used the writing of this original screenplay as a way to process his grief and anger. 

Eszterhas was mostly known at this point for campy studio fair like Flashdance, Checking Out, and the Bob Dylan acting showcase Hearts of Fire. He would go on to become the writer of the equally praised and maligned psychosexual campfests Basic Instinct, Sliver, and Showgirls. But he had a flair for courtroom thrillers, like the terrifically entertaining Jagged Edge, and social issue dramas, like Betrayed. The latter film marked his first collaboration with producer Irwin Winkler (Raging Bull, Rocky, The Right Stuff) and director Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing, Hanna K). The Greek-French director had by then solidified his reputation for making entertaining commercial pictures that center on controversial political issues. But many critics judged Music Box more harshly than Costa-Gavras’ previous films; some feeling that it belittled Holocaust history by using it as a mere narrative device for a Hollywood thriller that amounted to little more than an Oscar showcase for its star. But the film, which won the Golden Bear winner at the 40th Berlin International Film Festival, is a solid, extremely well-crafted picture that exposes Nazi atrocities in a palatable way while never shying away from the horrors of the Holocaust.

Though Lang lost the Oscar to Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy, she gives one of her best performances in this film. Everyone in the supporting cast is wonderful too. Mueller-Stahl probably would have scored a supporting actor nomination were it not for so many lead actors competing for supporting actor that year.

Twitter Capsule:
Solidly plotted hybrid of family drama, courtroom thriller, and holocaust history with Jessica Lang as a lawyer who defends her Hungarian immigrant father, brilliantly played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, against accusations of war crimes.

Directed by Costa-Gavras
Produced by Irwin Winkler

Written by Joe Eszterhas

With: Jessica Lange, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Frederic Forrest, Donald Moffat, Michael Rooker, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Lukas Haas, Mari Törőcsik, Elżbieta Czyżewska, and J.S. Block

Cinematography: Patrick Blossier
Editing: Joële Van Effenterre
Music: Philippe Sarde

Runtime: 124 min
Release Date: 08 December 1989
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color