The Odessa File [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #31]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #31.  Spoilers ahead.  

The Odessa File

Directed by Ronald Neame

Release Date:  October 18, 1974
My age then:  4 years old

What it is about:  German journalist Peter Miller learns through the diary of a deceased Jewish holocaust survivor about a cruel and vicious camp commandant named Eduard Roschmann who is still alive and has evaded justice. Pursuing the matter, he discovers many people in authority who are determined to keep secret an organization called ODESSA which helps former Nazi SS members to find new identities. He survives numerous attempts on his own life, infiltrates ODESSA, and eventually comes face to face with Roschmann. Miller reveals that Roschmann murdered Miller’s own father, who was a German army officer who refused to obey one of Roschmann’s orders. He intends to turn Roschmann into the authorities, but ends up killing him in self defense instead.

Starring Jon Voight as Peter Miller, Maximilian Schell as Eduard Roschmann, Mary Tamm as Miller’s girlfriend Sigi, Derek Jacobi as Klaus Wenzer (the man who creates the fake ODESSA passports), and Peter Jeffrey as an Israeli intelligence officer working against ODESSA. Maria Schell (Maximilian’s sister) gets third or fourth billing as Peter’s mother in spite of the fact that she’s barely in the movies. Hannes Messemer from The Great Escape appears as one of the leaders of ODESSA.

With both Tamm and Jacobi, this might be the only film in this series (or that I’ve seen ever?) which includes in its cast two future Doctor Who Time Lords. Cyril Shaps, who guest starred on Doctor Who a couple of times, is heard as the voice of the guy who’s diary Peter reads.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I had heard of this film only because I knew that Mary Tamm from Doctor Who was in it. I remember seeing the video box in the rental store or wherever, but never getting it to watch it. I knew it was an espionage thriller, and the image on the box showed Mary Tamm screaming against a tiled wall, which made me worried that her character was going to get killed in it.

Reality: Actually, Mary Tamm’s Sigi screams against a tiled wall twice in the movie–once when it looks like Peter has been murdered by being pushed in front of a train (he survives) and once when she is accosted in a long tunnel by a threatening hitman (which turns out to be a trick to drive her into the hands of corrupt police officers). As it is, she actually survives the whole movie, which certainly makes the whole experience of watching it a lot less brutal than it would have been otherwise.

Overall, The Odessa File offers you everything you’d want out of a movie like this–naturalistic storytelling with (mostly) unglamorous characters, and serious and dark and gritty tone. Although it’s not as dark and gritty as it could have been–actually aside from the flashbacks to World War II, the only characters killed are the villains. But the depressing depiction of people suffering at the hands of the Nazi’s during the war, combined with the present day threats to Peter and Sigi, are enough to give the movie the sense of menace that it needs, and to help keep it from turning into any sort of escapist fantasy. The movie briefly toys with this idea, with a plot about ODESSA wanting to use chemical weapons to devastate Israel, but this winds up barely developed. This could be considered a strength or a weakness of the movie, depending on your perspective and priorities.

What the movie is, though, is quite slow. It takes a while for things to kick into gear, and in the early stages of the movie it even seems like Jon Voight’s performance as Peter Miller is layered in pregnant pauses. After a while I got used to him and began to track with the character. He does a credible job with the action and espionage elements of his mission, without ever seeming unnaturally gifted in those areas. The twist that he has a personal vendetta against Roschmann was well done and justifies a lot of his actions through the film, making him more than just a crusader (although he never loses that element).

The rest of the cast are solid in their roles, though most are not given much “character” to actually work with. Still, everyone in habits their parts satisfactorily, and certainly Maximilian Schell and Derek Jacobi both bring some interesting moments to the screen. Mary Tamm is nearly the one young face in a sea of older and more experienced actors, but she is also good and does what she can with a character who doesn’t have a lot o depth, but is given a decent amount of screen time. Although Sigi is so strikingly beautiful and apparently financially successful that it’s hard to imagine why she is with a surly guy like Peter Miller.

Apparently, ODESSA is based on real organizations that served the same purpose, and Eduard Roschmann was a real person in World War II. Real life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (who is portrayed in the movie) was an advisor on both the movie and Frederick Forsyth’s book upon which it was based, and apparently used both to attempt to expose the real Roschmann to help bring him to justice…which is basically what happened. The real Roschmann died in 1977 in South America, although apparently Wiesenthal suspected his death was faked.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? In general I enjoyed the quiet and intimate take on a global conspiracy that this movie offers, and I liked the blend of idealism and personal vendetta that drives the climax. All that said, the movie didn’t give me anything really to fall in love with, and I don’t think it will stick with me in the long run.

See here for the Master List.

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