Costa-Gavras’ Music Box (1989) A Court Room Drama About War Criminals

Music Box is not a war movie in the strict sense of the term, especially not since it takes place some 40 years after the war. But it is about what happened to war criminals after the war. The one or the other is still caught today. Many tried to hide in distant countries. Some live in South America but there are certainly also a lot in the US. Since I want to watch Der Stellvertreter aka Amen by Costa-Gavras, I thought it might be interesting to re-watch this one before. I remembered that it moved me quite a bit when I saw it for the first time. I found it totally gripping. As much of the suspense comes from the question whether or not the accused committed the crimes I could concentrate on other elements this time.

Just imagine for one second, someone told you, your mother, or your father was a war criminal. He is said to have left the country shortly after the war and gone to the US where he led an exemplary life as a devoted father, able worker and much liked colleague. Imagine the two of you had a very close relationship. You love the stories your father tells you about his childhood and his youth, the horrors of the war and how he managed to flee to a more welcoming country. Your son adores him, your in-laws respect him. But then, one day, the US government accuses him of being a monster and wants to extradite him to Hungary where he would be judged. That is the story of Music Box. Ann Talbot’s (Jessica Lange) father, Viktor Laszlo, a Hungarian immigrant is accused of having committed war crimes. Ann is a successful lawyer and decides, after some initial reluctance, to defend her father. She doesn’t doubt for one second that he is innocent and soon she is able to prove that there have been wrong accusations before, that the Communist countries often try to get at those who fled from them. She is outraged by the injustice that is done to her father and equally shocked by the crimes, the man who is called Mischka, has committed. Torture, executions and rape. But what is the worst he is accused of is the fact that he showed no mercy, compassion or any other signs of empathy. Mischka enjoyed what he did. Much of it took place on the banks of the Danube in Budapest, near the famous Chain Bridge. One of the last parts of this gripping court-room drama takes place in Budapest. A nice addition to the movie. Budapest is a town I am particularly fond of but when I had seen the movie for the first time, I hadn’t been there yet. I didn’t even remember that part of it was filmed there.

Jessica Lange, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Frederic Forrest, the main actors are fantastic. Armin Mueller-Stahl is one of the very great German actors. I have often problems when actors fake an accent but he does it well.

For one reason or the other, I always compare Music Box to Sophie’s Choice. I find them both equally convincing from a psychlogical point of view. Both have outstanding female actresses in main roles. And they both have this typical 80ies feel.

I was wondering how I would rate this movie. It is interesting and gripping, psychlogically accurate but doesn’t deserve 5/5. It is somewhere between 4 and 4.5 because it is a tad too sentimental.

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Hart´s War (2002): A Dubious POW Legal Melodrama

There are numerous movies I could have watched while lying in bed with a cold the other day. I have a big “soon-to-be-watched” DVD pile and choice is far from scarce. There are many war movies and – believe it or not – a lot of non war movies to choose from. I didn’t really feel like watching anything too heavy so Hart’s War seemed like a good option.

It actually still seemed like a very good option more than half an hour into the movie but then it started to dawn on me that this was one of those hybrid movies, that are neither this, nor that nor anything else. Yeah well, seems as if disappointment is the daughter of bad choice and false expectations.

To cut a long story short: it was not my cup of tea. Although I appreciate the subgenre of the legal drama, this came across as a pseudo legal drama that I found less than convincing.

One good thing: Hart´s War is another movie that can be added to the small list of WWII movies with African American soldiers in it (see my post on African American Soldiers in War Movies).

Apart from that, you watch it and forget it and think: Too bad it could have been good if… If what?

What’s the story? A young law student, Lt. Hart (Colin Farrell), get’s captured by a German patrol while driving someone through the woods and ends up as POW after having been tortured before  giving away some information. The highest ranking officer among the prisoners in the camp, Col McNamara (Bruce Willis) immediately dislikes him as he despises him for lying about the fact that he has collapsed after a few short days under torture. As a sort of punishment he is not allowed to stay in the barracks with the other higher ranking officers but must join the barracks of the privates and the lower ranks.

This does not work out too bad until the day two black American pilots (Terrence Howard and Vicellous Reon Shannon), two of the Tuskegee Men in fact, appear and things get nasty. Full-blown racism hits them. Hatred and aggression follow until one is executed and the other one falsely accused of the murder of a white soldier.

Even though he has only been a second year law student before the war, Hart gets appointed as the defence attorney but after a while it gets clear that it is all a sham. Secret things are happening that need a cover-up. I found the justification of what is happening morally dubious. The end does not always justify the means.

The rest of the movie is a pathetic illustration of pride, honour and glory. Highly melodramatic.

The two black actors are good, Colin Farrell is quite all right but Bruce Willis is a parody of himself. Or maybe he had something in his eye. The height of his acting seemed to consist of standing there with one eye half closed and trying to look super imposing. (Just to make things clear, I do normally like Bruce Willis.)

Meaningless pseudo-court-drama with a melodramatic ending. 2.5/5 points (2.5 points are for cinematography, choice of the topic racism in the military… Forget the rest).

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) or A Truly Outstanding Legal Drama

Judgment at Nuremberg is a brilliant movie by Stanley Kramer. Outstanding actors, great pictures and a gripping story. Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland and Maximilian Schell. They are all good, very good.

The movie´s setting is post-WWII occupied Germany.  It tells the story of the trial of 4 German Nazi judges in an American court. They are accused of being responsible for sterilization and exterminations.

Spencer Tracy stars as Judge Dan Haywood who is conducting the trial, Marlene Dietrich plays Mrs. Bertholt, the widow of an executed Nazi army officer. Burt Lancaster is one of the accused judges, Maximilian Schell his defendant. One of the most convincing performances is given by Montgomery Clift who plays the role of one of the judges´ victims. His  interrogation is so touchingly performed, makes you feel really uneasy.

The film follows Judge Haywood in the court room and outside where he tries to get the full picture by befriending Mrs. Bertholt and talking to his housekeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Halbestadt to find out what the German people  really knew. It seems as if each one´s personal history and concerns overshadowed the things that happened around them. And even though they lived so close to Dachau, Halbestadts pretend to have been ignorant of the camps.

During the trial the testimonies of the witnesses, supported by original footage of the concentration camps and the interrogation of the accused, completes the picture of the past horrors.

Judge Haywood must now establish if, in believing to serve their country, the accused did right or wrong. Do exceptional circumstances permit different moral criteria? Does the conviction to do the right thing exempt  from punishment?

If you want  Judge Haywood´s  answer to these questions and if you like to see  truly outstanding movies and great acting, watch this one  as soon as you can.