By Ralph Novak
Updated January 15, 1990 12:00 PM

Jessica Lange, Armin Muller-stahl

Be forewarned: You’re likely to find this movie about an accused war criminal profoundly depressing, deliberate to a fault and self-important. However, you’ll never see two better performances than those of Lange and Mueller-Stahl, and director Costa-Gavras, meditating on the nature of human evil, cuts right to the heart of the matter and proceeds to grind it up in graphic fashion.

Lange plays a fast track Chicago criminal lawyer; the German-born Mueller-Stahl is her father, a Hungarian immigrant who raised his family in the U.S. but is suddenly accused of having tortured and murdered civilians as a member of a special police unit during the Nazi occupation. As Lange defends her father in a trial aimed at getting him deported back to Hungary, she reluctantly comes to question his innocence even as Mueller-Stahl insists it is a case of mistaken identity.

Costa-Gavras creates a deft, engrossing courtroom mystery as Lange faces off with prosecutor Frederic (Tucker) Forrest, yet he never loses the philosophical thread: How can seemingly average people commit monstrously inhuman acts? There is no violence shown on-camera, but the testimony of atrocities is vivid and grueling, and the film’s attacks on the human capacity for love—and the self-deception and gullibility it may harbor—is intellectual violence of an especially painful kind.

Meanwhile Costa-Gavras choreographs a dramatic ballet that lets Lange and Mueller-Stahl, subdued yet powerfully expressive in their body language and tone of voice, demonstrate the tension between them.

Forrest, never the strongest of actors, is burdened with an ungainly character. He keeps falling for obvious legal traps laid by Lange and is stuck with stilted dialogue (by Jagged Edge writer Joe Eszterhas): “And the Hungarians kept killing their Jews, turning their f——— romantic Danube into their own shade of blue.”

The rest of the cast, however, is exemplary. Lukas (TV’s The Ryan White Story) Haas, as Lange’s young son, and Donald Moffat, as her cynical ex-father-in-law, build especially vivid characters.

The ending will cast a pall over even the theretofore cheeriest of days, but there’s not a hint of cop-out about it. As is shown by his previous films, up to and including his most recent, Betrayed, Costa-Gavras calls it as he sees it, and what he sees is a dark, deep cave in which we all wander, lost. (PG)