The Odessa File (1974)


(director: Ronald Neame; screenwriters: Kenneth Ross/George Markstein/based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: Ralph Kemplen; music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; cast: Jon Voight (Peter Miller), Maximilian Schell (Edward Roschmann), Mary Tamm (Sigi), Maria Schell (Frau Miller), Derek Jacobi (Klaus Wenzer), Klaus Lowitsch (Gustav MacKensen), Martin Brandt (Marx), Shmuel Rodensky (Simon Wiesenthal), Towje Kleiner (Solomon Tauber), Gunnar Moeller (Karl Braun); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: ; Columbia; 1974-UK/W.Germany-in English)

“Neame’s uninspired direction has a great performance by Jon Voight get thrown under the train.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A political thriller set in the winter of 1963 that is based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth. His Day of the Jackal got a better treatment from Fred Zinnemann than this one helmed by Ronald Neame (“Gambit”/”The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”/”Tunes of Glory”). Neame’s uninspired direction has a great performance by Jon Voight get thrown under the train. The story revolves around a secret organization named Odessa that was formed after the war that helps former Nazi SS men get new identities and escape war criminal trials. The Odessa is a real organization, the narrative is fiction.

Peter Miller (Jon Voight) is a sensitive and hard-working ambitious young German free-lance journalist in Hamburg, who at the time of JFK’s assassination gets from his police officer friend (Gunnar Moeller) a diary from an elderly Jewish man, Solomon Tauber, who committed suicide. Tauber’s diary tells of a monster named Edward Roschmann (Maximilian Schell), who was the commandant of the concentration camp where Tauber survived and witnessed the killing of thousands of Jews and one German officer (who we will learn later was Peter’s father) by Roschmann. At the same time the journalist decides to do an investigative piece on the missing Roschmann, who escaped arrest from the British in 1945, the Israeli intelligence officers are also after Odessa. They are in the middle of a war with Nasser’s Egypt and have learned that there’s a secret deal between Egypt and a German munition’s plant connected to Odessa to sell the Arab country deadly Rocket warheads that could wipe out Israel. Peter picks up the pace of his investigation when Marx (Martin Brandt), also a Holocaust survivor, tells that his friend Tauber spotted Roschmann in Hamburg three weeks ago but the police ignored his report. When the Odessa members try to kill Peter after he fails to heed their warning to stop the investigation, he travels to Vienna to see Simon Wiesenthal (Shmuel Rodensky), the famous Holocaust survivor and now Nazi hunter, where he learns a great deal more about how wealthy and widespread is the organization. Peter then hooks up with Israeli intelligence and agrees to go undercover as an ex-SS sergeant needing a new identity because a camp survivor spotted him.

Peter’s daring infiltration of the group was never convincing, and his many life threatening situations seemed geared more for a James Bond type than a geeky journalist. Nevertheless the obsessed journalist’s grit and determination leads to his discovering Roschmann’s new identity as a leading German industrialist; in fact, it’s his plant that has the arms deal with Nasser. In its efforts to be an action story, it never does much with its deeper themes of Germany’s atonement of guilt and their split psyche that wants to either sweep the matter of mass murder under the carpet or on the other hand feels obligated to help Israel by selling them arms in their time of need. It’s too bad such an intense story came out so sluggish and its payoff leaves us with an insipid academic debate between the unreformed ex-Nazi executioner and the rational journalist calling for justice at the film’s supposedly most exciting moment.

The thriller is reduced to being routine and predictable, but the acting was uniformly good; especially those Nazi villains (for my money, no one beats the Germans in portraying Nazis). Maria Schell, Maximilian’s older sister, plays Voight’s mother even though she’s only 12 years his senior. Mary Tamm plays Voight’s loyal and bland girlfriend, who doesn’t have much to do but look scared throughout and warn her boyfriend to be careful. Derek Jacobi as a momma’s boy, who works for Odessa as a forger but doesn’t trust his employers, handles his small part with as much skill as such a minor part warrants.