Family secrets, writ large
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Family secrets, writ large

Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, spurred by October 7,  reveals his father’s Nazi collaboration

Eszterhas, center, is on the set of “Music Box” with director Costa-Gavras and actress Jessica Lange.
Eszterhas, center, is on the set of “Music Box” with director Costa-Gavras and actress Jessica Lange.

It’s not like Joe Eszterhas isn’t used to controversy.

He has written several extremely well received novels and memoirs, but he’s best known for the movies he wrote: “Flashdance,” “Basic Instinct,” and, of course, the problematic “Showgirls.” He’s written more than 15 films, all told.

At one point, Eszterhas was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. In 1997, for example, he earned $2.5 million for a four-page outline for “One Night Stand,” a script changed so much in production he actually took his name off it.

But perhaps his most interesting film on many levels is “Music Box,” a movie that ultimately revealed that truth isn’t stranger than fiction. Sometimes, they’re the same thing.

“Music Box,” a 1989 Costa-Gavras film, tells the story of an elderly Hungarian-American immigrant accused of having been a war criminal. It starred Armin Mueller-Stahl as Michael J. Laszlo, who, if convicted, faced the loss of his citizenship, and Jessica Lange, as his daughter and also the attorney who defends him. It was loosely based on the real-life case of John Demjanjuk.

But 10 years after he wrote the screenplay, the Justice Department accused Joe’s father of being a war criminal, and apparently had sufficient evidence to prove it.

It is the subject of Eszterhas’ recent appropriately titled essay, “Be Careful What You Write, It Can Break Your Heart,” published on the entertainment industry website, thewrap.com. In it, he talks about his background and relationship with his father, both before and after the revelation, as well as his relationship to Israel and the Jewish people.

I wondered what prompted Eszterhas to raise the subject now, especially given the rise in antisemitic sentiment around the world today. Moreover, he’s Catholic, and one of his books is about his return to the faith.

The essay about his father seemed a little incongruous to me. So I called and asked him about it.

“The war,” he told me. “It was pretty much the war. I’d written about this in different places before, about my father. As a result of everything that happened, I became something of a Holocaust scholar. Elie Wiesel was a major influence on me, and what was going on in the war and Israel’s endless battle for survival” prompted the essay.

Eszterhas was born in Hungary in 1944 and grew up in British and American refugee camps. His mother, Maria, and dad, Istvan, a well-regarded novelist, emigrated to the United States with him in 1951.

As Eszterhas recalls in his essay, he “was a loner, a bullied refugee kid with a big chip on my shoulder and with a bad temper.”

Joe Eszterhas

His life was “West Side Story” without the songs. “I ran with a gang of other poor kids with chips on their shoulders and zip guns in their pockets.”

He told me his father saved him. “My father was really the greatest influence.” Istvan got Joe to read, and “he taught me to judge a person by his character, not his religion or the color of his skin.”

Joe was particularly proud of his dad, who edited a Hungarian Catholic newspaper, for standing up to anyone who made an antisemitic comment in his presence — often the priests and monks who ran the paper.

“You can’t say those things in my office,” he told them. “You can’t say those things in America. What you are saying is wrong.”

Inspired by his dad, Joe lived the American dream. Not only did he read, but he wrote. He won a college scholarship, and as he did in high school, he edited the school paper.

He became a reporter for two newspapers and wrote for Rolling Stone, where his work caught the attention of some Hollywood biggies. He wrote a succession of successful films. But he always kept his father’s teachings at the forefront.

He was active in the civil rights movement, visited Dachau, “and then went to Israel, a magical place I came to love,” he wrote.

“In Jerusalem, I spent four days at Yad Vashem, the world’s most famous Holocaust museum, where I read as much about the Holocaust in Hungary as I could.”

It was after this that he wrote a screenplay called “Sins of the Father,” about a war criminal hiding in the U.S., later retitled “Music Box.”

He showed the script to his father, who told him, “I’ve never been prouder of you.” As he should have been. The film was a success, scoring a 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Two years later, though, the Justice Department accused Istvan of war crimes. Joe immediately returned to Cleveland and hired an attorney (Jewish as it turned out) to defend his dad.

The government said Istvan had written a book that called Jews parasites and urged their annihilation. The Office of Special Investigations insisted he was a high-ranking figure in the Arrow Cross, burned the books of Jewish authors, and ensconced his family in an apartment that rightfully belonged to a Jewish family.

At first, Istvan denied it. But as the OSI investigators laid out their evidence, it became clear that he was guilty. When denial was no longer possible, Istvan offered a variety of excuses: he did it to get ahead, he was ordered to do it, he didn’t know.

The DOJ decided not to pursue the charges, in part because of Istvan’s advanced age. But that didn’t make Joe feel any better.

He continued working. In fact, he still works and now has a couple of active projects, including a six-part limited series about right-wing extremism. But the truth is that he never totally recovered from his father’s betrayal.

Joe didn’t speak to Istvan for a long time. When his father became feeble, Joe paid for his nursing home care. But he didn’t call or visit, even at the end — Istvan died in 2001.

Although a decade or so ago Eszterhas admitted to some regret at that decision, he now he says that he has none.

“He was a very loving man,” Joe told me. “But I never had a relationship with him afterwards. I have no regrets. I think I did the right thing.

“The pain through the years, though, hasn’t gotten any better.”

As he watched the events of October 7 unfold, Joe Eszterhas thought again about his father. “Once the OSI investigators showed me all the evidence, I was devastated, because he was the most important person in my life.

Meanwhile, he took solace in the works of Wiesel, a Hungarian Jew who’d suffered indignities and worse at the hands of his neighbors, perhaps neighbors encouraged by people like his father. He found comfort in Wiesel’s words:

“Only the guilty are guilty. The children are not.”

And: “I believe in God — in spite of God. I believe in mankind — in spite of mankind. I believe in the future in spite of the past.”

And then Joe added his own words: “I believe in love — in spite of love.”

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