Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tortured Past

Film: Music Box
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve mentioned in the past about my position on Holocaust drama. I fully agree that it’s a story that needs to be told over and over. But there is only so much real horror I can stand before something like numbness sets in. It’s not a lack of outrage on my part, but sort of an overwhelming grayness where the horror is still there and I’ve lost the ability to react to it in some way. It’s why I pace myself on such films. Too many right in a row, and I emotionally freeze up to protect myself. Paced out, I can still feel the full horror, revulsion, and outrage that is necessary. And then we get Music Box, and my outrage comes from somewhere entirely different.

Anne Talbot (Jessica Lange) is a defense attorney in Chicago. She has just learned that her Hungarian immigrant father, Michael J. Laszlo (Armin Mueller-Stahl) may have his U.S. citizenship revoked for lying on his forms. The state contends that he lied because he a war criminal who actively participated in the slaughter of Roma people and Jews in Hungary. In fact, the state contends that he is actually a man known as Mishka, a commander of the Arrow Cross death squad. Michael claims that the accusations are false and have come from Hungarian communists who are attempting to discredit him for protests he was a part of. For her part, Anne believes in the truth of her father.

Eventually, the case goes to trial, and Anne’s brother Karchy (Michael Rooker) demands that she eviscerate anyone who goes after their father. Testimony seems to work in both directions here, though, and Anne is admittedly a little worried that the judge of the case (James Zagel) is Jewish, which she feels might influence the outcome. Various witnesses testify to the fact that Michael is, in fact, Mishka, while Anne does her best to discredit them. Of paramount importance to her is her son Mikey (Lukas Haas), who idolizes her father. Her ex-father-in-law (Donald Moffat) doesn’t think much of her chances, and as the case goes on, her assistant Georgine (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) seems to think that someone was blackmailing Michael, and that someone died in a hit-and-run accident.

Eventually, the scene switches to Hungary, because there is a potential witness who is too ill to travel. It’s here, in the third act, that everything comes to fruition and we discover exactly what happened in the past. I won’t take this further.

Music Box exists for two reasons. The first reason is that someone wanted Jessica Lange to have another Oscar nomination, a plan that clearly worked, since she was nominated. Lange is an actress of whom I didn’t have a firm opinion 10 years ago and who I have grown to like a great deal. Here, she is good, playing Anne Talbot not like a woman possessed, but like a woman who is desperate to prove her version of the truth, a truth she believes in. The second reason Music Box exists is tied to the first—it’s a scene that happens near the end of the movie where Lange is able to fully emote, something she does like a champ.

You know what? I have to spoil this. The rest of this review is going under a spoiler tag.

*** WHAT’S IN THE BOX? ***

In Hungary, Anne meets the sister of Tibor Zoldan, the man that appears to have been blackmailing Michael, and whom Michael claims was a friend he was helping. She learns that Tibor was a member of the Arrow Cross. She also receives a pawn ticket for a pawn shop in Chicago, and is asked to claim it and ship it back to Hungary. She does, and the ticket is for a music box. When it plays its song, it opens up, revealing pictures of Michael in an Arrow Cross uniform executing prisoners. So, all along, Michael Laszlo actually was a Nazi. That emoting scene for Jessica Lange is her discovery of this, and in that moment, we can see her entire world breaking down. Her father can no longer be honestly defended, and the man she thought she knew has turned out to be an inhuman monster.

And therein lies the problem. Music Box spends at least some of its time more or less attempting to make Michael Laszlo into a good man, the sort of man we’re supposed to like. He couldn’t possibly be a Nazi, right? On the one hand, it’s possible to view this as the film making the statement that anyone, even that kindly old man in this film, could be capable of horrifying atrocities. On the other hand, though, it very much feels at time like the film is attempting to have us sympathize with him.

Costa-Gavras is a director whose work on both Z and Missing I respect a great deal. This feels like a complete misfire from him. Jessica Lange does everything she can with the role, and she manages to be compelling. That emotive moment near the end really is about as good as it gets. But very little else works here. Holocaust films are still important, and they always will be important. There are literally millions of stories to be told. The story of a person responsible for atrocities, for wanton murder and torture, may still be a story that needs to be told as well, but not if we’re going to have it done in a way that, while not justifying what he did, certainly seems to want to brush it away in some respects. Costa-Gavras is better than this. Write Joe Eszterhas (of Showgirls fame) is himself Hungarian and may have felt very personally connected here, particularly to the character of Anne. If that’s the case, it still comes across as being potentially more pro-torturing Nazi than he might like.


Why to watch Music Box: Jessica Lange.
Why not to watch: Is it really a good idea to try to humanize Nazis?


  1. I liked this more than you did though clearly Jessica Lange is the true reason to watch.

    I thought for the film to work you had to not be sure about the father and for Anne to be so sure of her way he be presented as he was. His mild manner masked not a kindly nature as it seemed to but a rank indifference and therefore a lack of emotion. You don't at first doubt him because she seems SO sure, she seems to know him so well and she's not a dreamy eyed adolescent but an intelligent capable adult.

    Armin Mueller-Stahl is very good and I always love to see Donald Moffat in anything and I like what he does with his small role but the film belongs completely to Jessica Lange. She judges her character's demeanor well so when that scene (and she does make it an amazingly powerful one) comes along her reactions carry an extra weight because they feel true to who we know Anne Talbot to be.

    1. I don't disagree with a lot of your assessment here. I think I was just miffed by the fact that this seemed so manipulative. Lange is a treasure and she's brilliant in this, but she's absolutely the reason to see it.

      I like Donald Moffat as well.