FILMS

War’s dark legacy

Holocaust memories haunt two new movies

January 15 1990
FILMS

War’s dark legacy

Holocaust memories haunt two new movies

January 15 1990

War’s dark legacy

FILMS

Holocaust memories haunt two new movies

The Nazi Holocaust has cast a dark and lingering shadow across the 20th century. And it has haunted both survivors and perpetrators who have

tried to build new lives in North America. Two new movies deal with U.S. immigrants struggling to escape their memories of the Second World War. Music Box is a gripping courtroom drama about a lawyer who defends her Hungarian-American father against charges of war crimes. Enemies, A Love Story is a whimsical tragicomedy about the romantic misadventures of a Polish-American Jew still traumatized by Nazi terror. In Music Box, memories of the Holocaust emerge with each fateful turn of the plot; in Enemies, they gradually recede into the background. The two films are unalike in spirit and tone, but they are both about guilt. And both are distinguished by exceptional acting.

For its Greek-born director, Costa-Gavras, Music Box marks a return to the rigorous standards of dramatic realism that he set with Z (1969) and Missing (1982), two acclaimed thrillers about victims of right-wing dictatorships. After Betrayed (1988), his awkward attempt to dramatize the threat of fascism in Middle America, Costa-Gavras proves once again that he is the master of the intimate political thriller. Crafted with precision and

compassion, Music Box is an emotional time bomb planted in the human heart.

Filmed in both Chicago and Budapest, it stars a dark-haired, deglamorized Jessica Lange as Ann, a Chicago lawyer and divorced mother. One day, her widowed father, Mike

(Armin Mueller-Stahl), comes to her for legal counsel. U.S. authorities have uncovered evidence that he carried out atrocities for the Nazis in Hungary nearly 50 years before. If they prove their case in court, they may strip him of his American citizenship. Mike admits that he served as a police officer during the war, but he swears that he was simply a clerk.

Ann takes on his defence with confidence but soon learns that the prosecution’s case is thoroughly documented. As she does her best to represent her father, her faith in his innocence is slowly eroded by the testimony of one eyewitness after another identifying him as a coldblooded killer who was direct-

ly involved in the murder, torture and rape of Jews in Hungary. Ann’s only hope is to prove a case of mistaken identity. And, as the trial stirs up public controversy, she has to contend with its effect on her trusting 11-yearold son, Mikey (Lukas Haas), who idolizes his grandfather.

From the early scenes, it becomes fairly easy to guess if the defendant is guilty or innocent. But Music Box has such a well-tooled plot that there are constant surprises in the way that the truth is revealed. Rather than concocting a Holocaust whodunit, CostaGavras hinges the suspense on the emotional drama of Ann confronting her worst fears. And the catharsis is an explosion of sorrow and pity, not of vengeance and retribution.

As Ann, Lange gives her most powerful performance since playing the title role in Frances (1982), the true story of actress Frances Farmer’s descent into insanity. In Music Box, she taps equal depths of emotion, but she has to find her way through a complex web of intrigue to find them. The

result is a more measured and credible performance, one that builds by relentless increments. While Lange conveys each step in Ann’s rising vulnerability, German-born actor Mueller-Stahl portrays Mike as a chilling enigma. Mueller-Stahl, whose own father was executed by the Nazis for desertion on the last day of the war, seems to bring extraordinary commitment to the character.

Costa-Gavras skilfully avoids conventional perceptions of heroism and villainy. As Jack, the crusading federal prosecutor—and the heroine’s courtroom adversary—a hard-boiled Frederic Forrest occupies what would normally be the villain’s role. But because of the ambiguity surrounding Mike’s innocence, and the horror of the crimes he is alleged to have committed, nothing is as simple as it appears. Like Ann, the audience is tom by wildly conflicting sympathies. And the

movie makes it clear that no courtroom triumph of good over evil can erase the tragedy of the Holocaust.

In Enemies, A Love Story, based on the 1982 novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Holocaust serves as a premise for a romantic fable. The movie opens with a brief scene of a young man cowering in a hayloft while Nazi troops with dogs brutally assault a young peasant woman. It is a nightmare flashback. The man, a Polish Jew named Herman (Ron Silver), wakes up sweating in his bed in Coney Island, N.Y.

It is 1949, and the peasant in the dream is his wife, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie

Stein), his former maid, who did save him from the Nazis by hiding him in the hayloft. But Yadwiga, a gentile, is still a devoted servant. She cooks. She cleans. She washes him while he sits in the bathtub reading the paper. And she believes his lame alibis of bookselling trips in other cities—when, in fact, he is consorting with his Jewish mistress, Masha (Lena Olin).

Herman’s romantic life takes on yet another twist when his first wife, Tamara (Angelica Huston), who was reportedly killed during the war, suddenly reappears in New York City. She explains to her baffled husband that the Nazis, assuming she was dead, had thrown her into an open grave with hundreds of death-camp victims. But she managed to crawl out over the corpses and escape to Russia. Although Tamara does not want to hold Herman to his marital vows, she is sufficiently interested in him to make his life more complicated. Herman, meanwhile, is plagued by indecision. He feels loyal to Yadwiga, infatuated with Masha and intimidated by Tamara. The women form a classic trinity: servant, mistress and matriarch.

Stein’s undignified Yadwiga becomes an object of broad ridicule. But Huston and Olin both create irresistible characters. With her severe, square-jawed exoticism, Huston is fascinating to watch. Playing the wife who knows Herman all too well, she serves as the story’s caustic moralist. “If every man had his way,” she sighs, “every woman would lie down a prostitute and get up a virgin.”

Olin gives an incendiary performance as Masha, a concentration-camp survivor who craves romance and death with competing passions. The Swedish actress made a memorable impression as a bowler-hatted seductress in The Unbearable Lightness of Being(1988)— another movie about an Eastern European man with too many women. In Enemies, Olin again seduces the camera with a sexuality that recalls the bold cabaret styles of Garbo and Dietrich. And in portraying Masha’s mercurial personality, she flashes between extremes of despair and ecstasy with extraordinary control.

Unfortunately, the story tends to trivialize such passions—along with its characters. Silver’s portrayal of the befuddled Herman is amusing, but the man is so unsympathetic that it is difficult to understand why any of the women are attracted to him. For the first half of the movie, veteran director Paul Mazursky maintains a taut balance between the tragic and the comic. But in the second half, he surrenders to farce. The Holocaust flashbacks fade. And the narrative slackens into a shaggydog story about a man with three wives, a fable hoary with rabbinical wit and wisdom.

The esthetics of Enemies are almost beguiling enough to distract from its flaws. Mazursky evokes the period setting with charm and beauty. Huston and Olin are so compelling that they transcend their roles as archetypes of male fantasy. But in the spirit of the movie’s favorite motif, a Coney Island ferris wheel named the “Wheel of Wonder,” Enemies offers a giddy ride that ultimately goes nowhere.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON