Trevor Johnston talks to director Costa-Gavras and actor Armin Mueller-Stahl about the Berlin prize-winner Music Box; plus the new version of Lord of the Flies.
INDEX: 27 LISTINGS: WEEK ONE 35 WEEK TWO 36
Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin earlier this year, Music Box’s story of a Chicago family coming to suspect their father of war crimes back in Forties Budapest had a special significance for both director Costa-Gavras and actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, reports Trevor Johnston.
It was during the shooting of Betrayed, their expose of organised white racists in middle America, that director Costa-Gavras and esteemed screenwriter Joe Eszterhas ﬁrst mulled over the significance of the trial of Ukrainian-born Cleveland autoworker John Demjaniuk, who at that time had recently been indicted in Israel for his part in crimes against humanity committed in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. For Eszterhas the whole affair was an inspiration for further research which resulted in his second script for the politicised Greek film-maker who’s no stranger to tackling heavyweight material.
Music Box stars Jessica Lange as a successful Chicago lawyer whose Hungarian immigrant father, played by German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl (last seen here as Klaus Maria Brandauer’s corrupt commanding officer in Istvan Szabo’s Colonel Redl), is threatened with the loss of his American citizenship when it comes to light that he is suspected of collaborating with the Hungarian fascists in wartime atrocities against Budapest Jews. Believing unswervingly in her dad’s innocence she takes on the task of defending him herself, yet as the courtroom testimonies pile heinous accusation upon heinous accusation the jury’s growing doubts are matched only by her own fears. Eventually, the trial itself moves back to the scene of the alleged crimes in Budapest, where judicial and personal truths at last come to light. _
‘It’s important to have this family discovering who their father was,’ explains Constantin Costa-Gavras, whose Greek roots and many years resident in France serve up his English in a particularly thick accent, ‘because it’s an extension of what happens in wider society. We all begin to wonder what our father or
grandfather might have done in a similar situation. In fact, I did actually ask my father what he did during the war and I know he was part ofthe Greek resistance against the Nazis, associated with the left wing, and for me I think something ofa hero. But after that you go deeper and you want to discover just what form that resistance took, what it was that they did with the prisoners they hated. You begin to understand there is no real innocence.‘
Evidence like the figures quoted by Allan A. Ryan in his study The Quiet Neighbours, which points to official estimates that there may be as many as 10 000 war criminals living normal lives all across America, convinced the director that the subject matter was an issue waiting to be explored. ‘The documentation is piling up as they open the army archives, but they‘d need an army of judges and jurors to bring 10,000 suspects to trial,’ he reﬂects. ‘As a film-maker however, it‘s not the punishment of these old men that interests me but the idea of remembering the past. I’m trying to understand what happened, to examine how those people committed the crimes they did and look at the way society deals with them today.‘
While the prime movie-going audience remains under thirty however, there‘s a danger that they might question the continuing relevance of the matters raised by a film like Music Box. The Berlin award and notable critical praise for the performances ofJessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl might leave the average punter in little doubt of the film’s quality, but how does Costa-Gavras persuade the younger generation that this is a film it’s important for them to see?
‘There was a poll the other week in Paris and they found out that a huge percentage of people under a certain age didn‘t even know who De Gaulle was,‘ he sighs, ‘so you can imagine how little they understand or even care about the 405. I make a movie because I‘m interested in the story and I do it with as much passion as l have inside of me. All I can do when it‘s finished to persuade the audience to watch it is to come and speak with the press because you are the intermediaries and that's an important role.‘
At this point, Mueller-Stahl, a bearish man in his fifties who‘s been letting his director do most of the talking, breaks his previous diffidence and in a honeyed teutonic voice begins to reveal the sobering reasons behind his own personal committment to the project. ‘For me this is quite an opportunity, because for my generation World War Two is an important time, the blackest years of our century,‘ he explains to a respectful hush. ‘I brought my father to the barracks in September 1939. and I was crying because I didn‘t know what war was. My feeling was that it was something very bad however. On the last day of hostilities in 1945 we came to meet him as he left the army, but the message came through that after surviving all those years he‘d been shot by his own men for putting his rifle down and not continuing the fight. He died just a couple of kilometres down the road from us. That is the time ofour generation but it is still there. We will always need to explain to an audience not to let this time happen again. Be careful.‘
Music Box ([5) opens a! the Orleans in Edinburgh and Glasgow on Fri 6 July.
The List 29June— 12July 199025