Jon Voight affects a convincing German accent as freelance journalist Peter Miller, the unlikeliest of Nazi-hunters in director, Ronald Neame’s exquisitely underrated spy thriller, The Odessa File (1974); an understated, yet exhilarating and far too overlooked caper, unlike most, grounded in a harrowing history with more than a few kernels of truth in its verisimilitude. Loosely based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel; ‘Odessa,’ an acronym for ‘Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen’ (or Organization of Former Members of the SS), an international camouflage perpetrated by the Nazi high command during the war and maintained by high-ranking German officials ever since, for the sole purpose of concealing and protecting its former membership; given new identities in which to prosper. Revised as a screenplay by Kenneth Ross and George Markstein, The Odessa File falls back somewhat on the time-honored revenge tragedy to help along and iron out the more complex machinations established by Forsyth in the novel. Overall, the movie gets the finer points right, moodily photographed by cinematographer extraordinaire, Oswald Morris, whose screen credits also included The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965); arguably, two of the finest ‘war-themed’ dramas yet conceived.
The Odessa File is, alas, not in their class, though it remains a methodically paced ‘actioner’; the suspense in its set pieces not immediately obvious or perhaps even directly satisfying, achieved in a sort of self-contained vacuum, often staged in deafening silence to heighten the tension; always, in service of an all-pervading and world-weary cynicism. Neame builds upon the novel’s steadily unraveling revelations; a very complex jigsaw puzzle, its pieces awkwardly fitting together in Miller’s mind as he traverses the unsmiling byways and dour back alleys of a spookily-lit and very frosty winter landscape, queerly juxtaposing the contemporary remnants of Germany’s old-world gemütlichkeit with a rather austere façade devoted to its newfound faux respectability. It seems no one in postwar Germany wants to be reminded of the past; least of all, that the horrors perpetuated under Hitler’s Reich have, for the most part, been exonerated by a secret organization – and worse – allowing the most heinous of its transgressors off scot-free to proliferate and share in this reborn postwar prosperity.
No, the past is dead – or rather – should be, as far as ‘some’ in the new Germany are concerned. And yet, it is the past that will surge ahead once more, on a collision course, and, with the destiny of two nations – Germany’s and Israel’s – hanging in the balance. The Odessa File opens with a prologue in 1963, Mossad informant David Porath (Peter Jeffrey) debriefed by an Israeli General (Garfield Morgan) of a dreadful plot, perpetuated by the second President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, to launch 400 missiles containing enough biological warfare that, if it succeeds, will decimate the population and effectively wipe Israel off the map for good. The crux of the plan has thus far been delayed only by a lack of scientific engineering to perfect the missile guidance systems necessary to unleash these chemical compounds where they can do the most harm. Somewhere in Germany a munitions factory is working hard to complete this technology with scientists once loyal to Hitler; the plant’s workers wholly unaware of the dark purpose behind their breakthrough. This premise is retained for the movie. But from this point on, the movie is considerably changed from the novel; Miller’s dogmatic pursuit of the real-life ‘Butcher of Riga’, Eduard Roschmann, who reveled in the torture of hundreds of thousands placed under his surveillance, superseding the more global scope of Forsyth’s international saga. Director, Neame ensures an almost claustrophobic adherence to this more personalized and very tightly scripted revenge scenario, though the audience will remain quietly unaware of the misdirection in Miller’s investigative research for quite some time.
As a movie, The Odessa File excels as a sort of uber-slick, if mildly subdued ‘actioner’ with a distinct revisionist take on the novel; Jon Voight, then the hottie du jour, riding his crest of fame first established as the naïve Texan-turned-gigolo in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and unlikely, meek survivor of a hellish camping expedition in Deliverance (1972). Voight’s charm in The Odessa File is unusual to say the least; a barely handsome transformation into inauspiciously elegance as the failed young idealist put to the ultimate test against a specter from his own past. And as the ‘good German’, Voight lends his alter ego a rather probing, angry impetus; our misinterpretation of his motivations, as more altruistic than they actually are, debunked in the last act confrontation between Miller and Roschmann (played with a particularly sinister and affecting venom by Maximillian Schell). Given Schell’s ‘super-Nazi’ is barely glimpsed in flashback and, in the present-day with his re-branded identity as Josef Kiefel – Herr Direktor of the company manufacturing the missile guidance systems set to decimate Israel, the penultimate altercation between the two inside Roschmann’s rather sparsely decorated Schloß, it is saying a great deal Schell’s presence is felt throughout the picture; perhaps even mirrored in the eyes of his protective assassins; General Glücks (Hannes Messemer), who pushes Miller in front of an oncoming subway train, and, Gustav Mackensen (Klaus Löwitsch), setting a murderous trap for Miller inside Klaus Wenzer’s (Derek Jacobi) photographic studio. While the former plot point to assassinate Miller is good for the thirty-second startle - everyone on the platform, even Miller’s girlfriend, Sigi (Mary Tamm) unprepared for his split-second survival from certain death – the latter, staged between Miller and Mackensen is a skillfully protracted ‘fight sequence’; memorable for its all-pervading near silence, ending with Mackensen’s plummet through a glass ceiling, impaled on a metal spike in Wenzer’s workroom.
After the aforementioned prologue in Israel, The Odessa File begins with an off-kilter lighthearted touch; Peter Miller driving through Hamburg, its streets generously decorated for the pending Christmas holidays; news of President Kennedy’s death reaching Miller via a radio broadcast, interpolated with Perry Como’s effervescent carol, ‘Christmas Dream’. Derailed in his thoughts by a passing ambulance and several police cars, Miller tails the emergency traffic to a downtrodden neighborhood apartment; attempting to enter the scene using his press pass. Denied access, Miller next makes a play for Inspector Karl Braun (Gunnar Möller); an invaluable contact and good friend besides. But Braun encourages Miller to forget about it. Meanwhile, the body of aged holocaust survivor, Salomon Tauber (Towje Kleiner), who presumably gassed himself, is removed from the apartment. We retreat momentarily to the cluttered apartment Miller shares with his girlfriend, Sigi – a topless dancer at a ‘respectable’ men’s club. Already there are cracks in their relationship; she, preferring a real home and hinting at marriage, while he is completely comfortable with the status quo; his part-time/sometime work as a freelancer and lack of stability as a potential mate, leading to some minor tension between the two.
The next afternoon, Braun asks Miller to lunch, offering up the private diary recovered from Tauber’s apartment. Very soon, this densely packed recollection of the war will become Miller’s all-consuming passion. Sigi is mildly put off by Miller’s obsession with the manuscript. Indeed, it frequently leaves him despondent. Via Miller’s imagination, we experience several flashbacks derived from Tauber’s accounts; Solomon and his wife, Esther (Miriam Mahler) separated at Riga concentration camp. Miller also learns of an altercation described in the journal, in which Roschmann, eager to elude incarceration for war crimes, shot to death a Wehrmacht Captain (Joachim Dietmar Mues) who refused to allow him safe conduct. These episodes do more than contextualize the Nazi brutalities endured by the condemned Jewish population at the camps. To better comprehend the lingering impact of the past, Miller consults his widowed mother (Maria Schell) who regales him with tearful memories of his father. These only serve to crystalize Miller’s resolve. Now, he contacts Tauber’s friend, Herr Marx (Martin Brandt); a forlorn shell of a man and learns Tauber ran into Roschmann as recently as three weeks earlier; shocked to discover his old adversary thriving in the new Germany as a businessman of some stature. At this point, Braun nervously asks Miller for the return of Tauber’s diary. He never expected Miller would make it his all-consuming passion.
Miller next makes an inquiry at the Attorney General’s Office, his casual questioning of a secretary thwarted by an officious, though not terribly clever lawyer (Georg Marischka) who has interrupted Miller to take a phone call about a meeting of the Division Siegfried; a not so secret society of ex-SS officers, plotting yet again to take over Germany with their particular brand of hatred. After Miller crashes the affair and gets a sincere taste of the sinister troop’s mantra, he is identified by the lawyer, escorted from the hall and beaten to a pulp by several men loyal to General Glücks (Hannes Messemer) who now informs his cronies that President Kennedy’s death has merely stalled an arms agreement between their two nations that President Johnson will likely put into effect within less than three months. The situation is critical. Germany’s guided missile system must be perfected and placed in the hands of the Egyptian government before then, thus ensuring their biological warfare against Israel will succeed. Glucks sends Gen. Griefer (Günter Meisner) to take care of matters. Griefer tails Miller and Sigi while they are Christmas shopping, pushing Miller off a subway platform in front of an oncoming train to his certain death, leaving Sigi inconsolable. As fate would have it, Miller has the reflexes of a jungle cat, rolling out of the way of the oncoming train, wedged between it and the tracks until help can arrive; his life, mercifully spared.
Recognizing the situation as critical, Miller makes contact with famed Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal (Schmuel Rodensky) who provides him with much relevant information about ODESSA, the secret organization responsible for cloaking the sins of a goodly number of former SS officers, setting them up with new identities and professions in which they continue their work, while secretly undermining the new Germany. After the war, ODESSA began an aggressive campaign to infiltrate virtually every facet of life; commerce, judges, state officials and even the local police. While their influence is global, with prosperous satellites in the Middle East and South America, their base of operations remains in Germany. At his hotel, Miller is confronted by Dr. Schmidt, another of the organization’s associates. The meeting is cordial, but the message is clear. It would not benefit Miller’s good health to pursue his investigation of Roschmann any further. It does not take long for Schmidt’s prophecy to be realized…ironically, not by ODESSA’s henchmen, but by Porath who, together with Mossad operative, Alfred Oster (Kurt Meisel), devise a devious plan for Miller to impersonate one of the SS’s own and infiltrate their organization from the inside. Sufficiently aged with makeup and hair dye, Miller is sent to Austria and thoroughly cross-examined by the organization’s Franz Bayer (Noel Willman). Although Bayer believes Miller’s story and takes his false identity at face value, sending him to be photographed for another fake passport by one of their lesser operatives, Klaus Wenzer; in Germany, Werner Deilman (Ernst Schröder) has hired the assassin, Gustav Mackensen to put an end to Miller’s charade posthaste.
Arriving at Wenzer’s print shop first, Miller endeavors to have his picture taken. Instead, he is informed it will take a few days’ time to locate a suitable photographer for the job. In the meantime, Mackensen arrives, ordering Wenzer to telephone Miller in the dead of night to shoot the photo. Planning to murder Miller upon his midnight rendezvous with a silenced pistol, Miller instead thwarts the attempted assassination, struggling with Mackensen and driving the hired gun up to the rooftops. The men struggle to maintain their footing. Mackensen loses his and plummets to his death through the glass ceiling, impaled on a large metal spike in Wenzer’s workroom. In Wenzer’s safe, Miller discovers ‘the Odessa file’; a detailed account of the secret organization, complete with photographs of virtually all its key operatives. The file is hidden by Miller in a safety deposit box; the key given to Sigi with instructions that if he should not return, she is to recover the documents and turn them over to the ‘legitimate’ police. Learning of Roschmann’s second identity, as Josef Kiefel; a noted businessman managing a highly profitable technologies company, Miller tails Roschmann to his remote castle and, at gunpoint, gets the semi-retired Nazi to confess everything. What follows is some of the most blood-curdling exposition in the entire movie, expertly relayed by Maximillian Schell whose alter-ego is an unrepentant gross pig of a human being.
Roschmann has erroneously assumed Miller is on a crusade to rid Germany of the war-mongering/Jew-hating Nazi devil. Only now Miller confesses the true nature of his showdown; he is the son of the Captain murdered so long ago when Roschmann sought to make a quick escape by boat at the end of the war. Perhaps implicitly realizing he has no ‘out’ from Miller’s revenge scenario, Roschmann takes dead aim with a hidden pistol in a feeble bid to kill Miller. He is instead hastily dispatched by Miller, who ruthlessly pumps three bullets into Roschmann’s chest. In the movie’s epilogue we learn Miller served three months for his ‘crime’, though he was never formally charged; the whole affair quietly swept under the rug. As the truth of the organization becomes public around the world and an obvious embarrassment to Germany, the government is strong-armed into arresting virtually all of ODESSA’s key members, ultimately prosecuted for war crimes. We see Miller fulfilling a promise to the late Tauber who, in his memoirs, inquired if anyone cared enough about the plight of one old Jew and to avenge the injustices perpetrated on so many during WWII. Miller is seen with Marx in Israel, quietly observing as Marx offers a prayer for Tauber’s immortal soul.
The second and third acts of The Odessa File – the movie – are almost a complete revision of Frederick Forsyth’s novel. In the book, Miller's identity is compromised by his persistence to drive his own sports car – a vehicle his alter ego could never afford. Members of ODESSA, plant a bomb under the front seat. Mercifully, the car’s stiff suspension precludes the bomb from detonating. The penultimate confrontation between Miller and Roschmann does not end with Miller killing his nemesis, but rather with Miller handcuffing Roschmann to a fireplace with plans to have him arrested and prosecuted. Alas, Miller is ambushed and knocked unconscious by Roschmann’s bodyguard who unwittingly detonates the bomb while driving Miller’s sports car to get help. Roschmann vanishes into thin air, presumably to Argentina. An unnamed hit man, sent to murder Miller is instead killed by Josef who swears Miller to silence for his complicity in their plan. Roschmann’s German technologies factory is shuttered and eventually destroyed, the plot to decimate Israel with biological weapons narrowly averted. Josef, who is in fact Major Uri ben Shaul, of Israeli army intelligence, takes Tauber’s diary home to Israel, a holy man reciting Kaddish for Salomon Tauber’s immortal soul.
While one may argue the concisions and excisions made in Kenneth Ross and Georg Markstein’s screenplay have only served to tighten the narrative structure and keep what is already an extremely complex plot more narrowly focused on its central figure of heroism – Peter Miller – one cannot help but find the alterations wan ghost flowers to Forsyth’s original grand plan, their hasty resolution falling into the category of clumsily stitched together and near clichéd finales for which audiences, rather than art, are thoroughly satisfied. It is one of the divine ironies of humanity that history – good, bad or indifferent – rightfully refuses to fade into obscurity; stirred in Miller’s mind by the unlikeliest kismet; a chance delay at a streetlight in the seedy end of Hamburg while listening to the radio. How fickle is fate to stir a reporter’s curiosity with the sudden appearance of an ambulance and several police cars racing to a dingy little apartment. As is often the case, big things have little beginnings. But in the case of The Odessa File, little things remain terribly convoluted for long stretches, despite director, Ronald Neame’s best intention to roll out a finely wrought tale of espionage and corruption at the highest levels of government.
The primary flaw with The Odessa File is its variegated machinations are entirely built around its star. While ODESSA is made up of the intrigues of a well-oiled and all-pervasive association of wicked usurpers; heroism herein, is exclusively the domain of one man’s crusade to expose the truth. Jon Voight delivers a thoroughly credible and occasionally brilliant performance with an impeccable German accent to boot. But he is weighted down by the pressures of his star-billing. Remember, it’s only a movie and a Hollywood one at that; ergo, nothing bad ever happens to the star, diffusing the ticking time bomb of the narrative considerably. Hence the exercise of exposing ODESSA to the world at large becomes almost academic, and certainly, at times extremely clinical; meticulously thought out and superbly paced by director, Ronald Neame, right down to the last detail, but with far too much stolidity to ever get any real suspense off the ground. The penultimate showdown between Roschmann and Miller is the tour de force of the picture, crackling with Maximillian Schell’s penchant for achieving a sort of sadist’s eloquence, meant to justify mass murder; even at gunpoint, more amused by Miller’s petulance until he discovers the real reason for his sneak attack – revenge…always a dish best served cold. And in this moment, Neame seems to be drawing parallels between Schell’s sadist and Miller’s less than altruistic pursuit of the truth.
Miller’s brutal dispatch of Roschmann makes the circle complete; Miller, having transgressed and, in fact, betrayed his father’s legacy by reacting to evil, and thus having more than a little of it ‘rub off’ on him in the process. In the last analysis, The Odessa File is a flawed and ever so slightly ill-favored affair. It lacks the satisfaction of seeing unequivocal goodness triumph over evil, perhaps because, like the novel, it largely trades in the tonalities of a very murky past where polar opposites cannot and do not exist. Such is life too and alas, even if it never stops the daydreamer from his/her hallucinations. Movies, however, function on more succinct plains of pleasure. There are no ‘winners’ in The Odessa File; no champions to withstand the winds of change. It all boils down to this; the holocaust and its aftermath were and remain imperfect chapters in an inhuman history, and nothing on God’s green earth will ever be able to smooth over the jagged edges of its terrific nightmare. The Odessa File makes valiant strides to suggest one man can ultimately make a difference. Peter Miller affects positive change – yes. But he is marginally destroyed by the end of the journey; revenge, having exacted its pound of flesh as a disease of the heart, mind and soul, still never to be satisfied.
Back in an era when Image Entertainment stood for something, Sony Entertainment farmed out The Odessa File to its third party distribution rather than market the movie under their studio banner. The results, as with most any 1080p transfer Sony has endeavored to offer up, are exceptional. Colors are vibrant. The image is razor-sharp without appearing to have suffered from any untoward digital tinkering. Flesh tones are very accurate. Grain appears indigenous to its source and contrast levels are bang on spectacular. Bottom line: Sony’s motto of ‘quality first’ is, as always, to be highly commended. What we have here is a hi-def transfer worthy of the best. There are only one or two transitional dissolves that bear a sudden softening of the image and it is doubtful anything more could have been done to ‘correct’ their brief intrusions. The 2.0 mono audio is adequate for this presentation; everything front and center, but with occasionally distinguished spatiality. Perry Como’s ‘Christmas Dream’, as example, sounds marvelous. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s underscore becomes a tad too bombastic to be taken seriously during Miller’s confrontation with Mackensen. But otherwise, Webber’s work compliments the visuals immensely. Regrettably, there are NO extras; not even a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: The Odessa File may be an imperfect movie, but Sony’s superb Blu-ray offers a top-notch presentation definitely worthy of our consideration and praise. Bravo!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)