In 1974, Ronald Neame directed the film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Odessa File. It opens in the desert bordering Egypt and Israel. An Israeli strategist tells a member of what is probably Mosad (Israel’s version of the CIA) that Nasser, then president of Egypt, was very close to gaining a missile guidance system that would permit Egypt to launch a seriously dirty bombs and bombs loaded with plague into Israel.
Here is the front matter given just before the film proper begins: “This film is based on carefully documented research. There really was a secret society called Odessa, linking former members of Hitler’s murderous SS, among them Roschmann, the ‘butcher’ of Riga Concentration Camp. Nasser did seek to perfect a strike force of 400 rockets to wipe Israel off the face of the map. His key scientists were mostly from Hitler’s former rocket programme. For obvious reasons the names of some people and places have been changed.”
Given that in less than two minutes, we know the outline of the entire story and, since Israel is in the same place I left it when I went to sleep, Nasser’s plan didn’t work out as desired. This means we are left with my favorite sort of story: the “how” story.
Peter Miller is sort of the newspaper version of an ambulance chaser. On his way home, he sees a police cordon and stops to investigate. The body of an old man who had killed himself is loaded into an ambulance. Peter is mildly interested, at first. Then, a day later, a friend at the police department brings Peter the diary the old man had left behind. Salomon Tauber survived over a year in Riga Concentration Camp in Lithuania. Rather than a survival story that we have come to expect, Tauber’s diary is more a camp biography of the stupendously vicious Eduard Roschmann, commandant of the camp. The diary’s theme shifts to Tauber’s hunt for, and discovery of, this demonic person. Through a friend of Tauber’s Peter interviews, Peter finds out that Tauber “gassed” himself after a confrontation with Roschmann resulted in nothing more than suicidal frustration.
Peter, as much from outrage as the nose for a good story, continues the investigation with a mind to exposing Roschmann. He is ham fisted about his research and this leaves him battered and bruised and threatened. Peter is nabbed by a group of Israeli spies led by the agent we see in the beginning. Once they are convinced Peter is serious about his idée fixe, however inept it is, they propose that he agree to fake his identity to get into the Odessa underground—it is the only way the spies can get the information they need to thwart the delivery of the guidance system. Peter agrees and undergoes a couple of weeks of extremely intense grilling so Peter wouldn’t be caught in any interrogation traps he might face trying to gain entry into this brotherhood.
While Peter is undergoing this semi-torture, his girlfriend, Sigi has been threatened and the Hamburg police (most of whom are Odessa beneficiaries) give her a guardian to keep her safe from these threats until her harasser has been located.
Peter’s training gains him access to the point where he is sent to have his identity papers forged, the first and most important step. The training never pushed the fact that he should have no contact Sigi at all; he calls her from a train station. Sigi’s guardian is obviously a mole and when she finds out that Peter was calling from a train station, she alerts the undergroud and the power used to help him is instantly turned to murder him. This means that Peter has to go rouge not only to get the rest of the story and confront Roschmann, but simply to survive.
At that point the movie becomes a relatively standard Man Who Knew too Much format—common man against the power of secret groups that work outside of any law he will understand.
There will be some potential plot spoilers below so I want to go ahead and cover the recommendation here. I obviously recommend it highly given that I rated it at four stars, but there are a couple of issues that I want to cover briefly that I would be remiss in skipping. This is not an ensemble movie. It is all John Voight (Peter Miller) all the time; he is excellent though. Maximillian Schell is brilliant when we see him, but he is very much like a Col. Kurtz in that his name strikes fear and confusion in a way that his presence diminishes. The ending is also a bit weak but not catastrophic, so it is worth getting there.
While the cast isn’t filled with easily recognizable names, there was no weak performance.
I will get into specifics in a short history of this sort of film below the review, but the topic wasn’t one that would have droves flocking to see it. So it was a gamble to put what had to be a significant sum on the production. Though most of the film is interior-scenes, it was filmed in Panavision giving an “inside” movie the feel of an epic. Also, Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the music—like him or not (and I don’t) his labor was pretty expensive.
I would love for a film historian (particularly one familiar with the technical facets) to help me understand why movies of the period from the late 1960s to about the middle 1970s had so much heavy looping. The entire film was relooped for dialog, something else that couldn’t have come at a bargain. I mention this not only for the potential cost but it is something that is off-putting for me and took me a while to overlook (a totally personal nit that doesn’t factor into how I rate the film).
It is a quality piece of work and well worth the two hours you would spend.
A general progression of Holocaust exploration and examination in film—feel free to skip it.
The Odessa File is a good movie in its own right. What will not permanently consign it to “out of date” spy movies, though, is its historical importance.
It is now widely known that for decades after the liberation of the camps, the general population didn’t want to know any details about the camp survivors. This gloss was much thicker in the survivor community. Don’t talk about it and it will go away. Deny it and it may stay at bay forever.
When Eichmann was found, then tried, then hanged in 1961, it seemed to give everyone just the right amount of information to be carefully horrified. Since this was such a big deal, it similarly gave everyone a reason to think it could be the tombstone for the whole nasty business. For a while it was.
Due to men like Simon Wiesenthal doing research and hunting Eichmann’s peers, the relative comfort following the trial wouldn’t last long.
Mr. Wiesenthal was a consultant for The Odessa File. Adding even more historical gravitas to the story about Odessa and Nasser. Also an actor plays Mr. Wiesenthal in the film. Further, Tauber’s story contains quite a few similarities to Mr. Wiesenthal’s experiences.
Even thirty years after liberation, Hollywood still believed that showing too much detail from camp life would meet with low ticket sales if not outright hostility, so stories talked around the events.
Pawnbroker covers the movement from Hollywood denial to survivor denial, then the gradual acceptance by a general pubic.
There were a few films before The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), but they are so minor that it is nearly impossible to find them, and if you do they are likely to be only in VHS format. Diary was consciously focused only on the hiding and musings of a young girl and was “devoid of Nazi horrors” in the words of the director George Stevens. The only item to indicate what happened after the Franks were found is a vague dream sequence that shows a gloss of inmates with nothing specific happening. Interestingly, Stevens had filmed the liberation of Dachau. While Hollywood wasn’t jazzed about making any overt Holocaust film, Stevens would have been the man who could have pushed. I’m of mixed feelings about whether he should have.
Pawnbroker (1965) is generally accepted to be the first movie to take on the topic in a way that would move an audience without being salacious. It also takes on the specific issue of how many survivors dealt with the memories. Saul begins to be tormented by his memories that get increasingly longer as the film continues. It is worth noting that these memories do not show the horrors we are now more familiar with—but in director Sidney Lumet’s hands, this item meant that the focus stayed entirely on Saul which would not have been true had his memories been more in line with what we expect now. On a side note, The Pawnbroker has become one of my favorite movies.
From here, the documentary jumps to 1978 when a nine hour miniseries, Holocaust: A Story of the Family Weiss was aired. According to Imaginary Witness the miniseries’ viewership was one-in-two. It caused shock in many and anger among some survivors. That public reaction opened the dialog that eventually led to the deeply personal Sophie’s Choice in 1982 and the broader, but new narrative of Schindler’s List a decade later.
Odessa was halfway between The Pawnbroker and Holocaust and is entirely left out of Imaginary Witness. I marked down the documentary for straying from its central point a bit too often, but until I saw Odessa, I didn’t realize that it was significantly incomplete.
There are two items in Odessa that make it unique. Perhaps from a pure narrative point of view, they seem small, but they are thematically substantial. The first is that all scenes recalling Roschmann’s atrocities are in black and white, in German and without subtitles. However when we finally see the current day Roschmann, he speaks German accented English. Yes it highlights the brutality of the man and the time but it is a sort of metaphorical “out” since when we do see him he is almost disgustingly civilized (complete with a bulging belly). In a cultural sense, though, it is very much an “out.” Changing the way something is spoken can/does change the way it is perceived. And apart from this semantic view, it was a great trope in the film.
The second item is a speech that Roschmann gives when Peter confronts him. He says that the blond haired, blue eyed Peter is the product of the efforts he and his SS brothers put into effect. That Peter is strong and virile by the same token. And that Roschmann is owed a thank you for helping out that eugenic mechanism in place. And what did it matter that a few Jews died in the process? I’ve run into that comment before and likely will again, but it is the first time (only time to my memory) that it appeared in a wide release film. It has been more than 30 years since Odessa and dozens of Holocaust films and documentaries have come and gone so we are inured to some of the harsher things whether we like it or not. This wasn’t true in 1974, though—imagine what it sounded like then.
What did you think of this review?
Darren Aronofsky's controversial and critically acclaimed 20 …
Drama movie directed by Gus Van Sant