In the early 1970s, there were a few authors who had the action/espionage/adventure genre down, and produced bestselling thriller after thriller. Some had been around a long time, like Alistair MacLean. Frederick Forsyth, a former peacetime RAF pilot and BBC Biafran war correspondent, was one of the new guys, then; The Odessa File, published in 1972, was his second novel. It was as big a hit as his first, The Day of the Jackal, and like it was based on real people and organizations and given a twist.
The basic plot of the movie follows the novel in general terms: in Germany in 1963-64, independent journalist Peter Miller is looking for a particular SS officer, Eduard Roschmann, “The Butcher of Riga”, apparently for journalistic reasons. Roschmann is thought to have died — or gone underground. Miller discovers that the SS had set up sophisticated escape and evasion networks and stay-behind networks, which operate under the aegis of an SS veteran’s organization, Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, ODESSA by acronym. The clandestine ODESSA network has spirited some Nazis to South America, and given others new identities in Germany. Miller makes contact with an Israeli group who are trying to infiltrate ODESSA, and they prepare and train Miller to take on a former KZ guard’s identity. Miller makes it as far as ODESSA’s master forger, one Wenzer; but the organization is on to him. Will he find Roschmann and expose the other war criminals before the organization finds him and plugs the security leak?
Acting and Production
Miller is well cast as, and well played by, Jon Voight; Roschmann, likewise, by Maximilian Schell, Hollywood’s go-to Nazi of the era.
Voight in old-SS-vet mode, and yes, the movie really hinges on an eponymous file.
Other strong performances include the then-unknown Derek Jacobi as Klaus Wenzer, a forger who, while he must be a Nazi, is a model of filial devotion (that is classic Forsyth: depth of even bit characters, laid out with an economy of words).
The movie diverges widely from the book in many details; Miller’s movie derring-do is more physical, and less psychological, than his book investigation. Both are worth enjoying, even now almost 50 years later.
It’s an adventure movie: the hero has to wriggle into an enemy castle!
The ODESSA File is shot in color, but there’s such great attention to light and shadow in each shot that one suspects that director Ronald Neame was paying homage to the black-and-white classics of film noir. It may be simpler than that; before Neame became a director in his own right, he was an acclaimed cinematographer who worked with David Lean.
Schell in a flashback. Image from IMFDB
Now, this is embarrassing: our recollection is that flashbacks are presented in black and white, but stills exist in both b&w and color, making us doubt our memory. The flashbacks are useful, not distracting, as is the framing device of an old concentration camp survivor’s diary and his last request. (Note that in the 1970s, when the movie was made, or the 60s, its setting, no one said “Holocaust” with a capital H yet).
Make-up did a remarkable job of aging Maximilian Schell for his “contemporary” scenes and of “appearing to age” Voight’s character to disguise him as an older SS man. We don’t often think of the makeup artist’s contribution to films, because unless it’s an extreme job, like this, or unless it’s really bad, it’s invisible.
The score is… how to put this nicely? Nicely, hell, let’s just be honest: it’s awful. It’s jarring and distracting, musique concrète meets the bizarre synthesized sounds of the 1970-vintage Moog synthesizer. All the excesses of the period are on the soundtrack, and they haven’t aged well. After the film ended, it was not surprising to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name roll by as the composer. Naturally.
Accuracy and Weapons
Forsyth (who is still with us, as he closes in on eighty, supporting the Brexit campaign) is famous for his painstaking research. He has said that his inspiration for The Day of the Jackal was to apply journalistic research and sourcing to fiction, and his books contain real persons acting plausibly, real. The real names used in the book include both Roschmann and “The Butcher of Riga” (who were two different people), several other Nazis who are bit players, and Nazi nemesis Simon Wiesenthal.
Naturally the uses he puts these characters to in the book, and the slightly different uses they have in the streamlined movie, are fictional. Roschmann never shot another Nazi officer, and never headed an industrial firm — indeed, at the time of the book and movie his whereabouts were unknown and it was thought probable he had perished in the sinking of one of the Baltic refugee transports, a transport that plays a small role in the movie — and any suggestion that Wiesenthal worked with kinetically-oriented Israeli Nazi hunters is based on guesswork, not evidence. Some reviewers seem to be spun up about that, but Wiesenthal, at least, seems to have given interviews to Forsyth and liked the book and movie.
Roschmann, it can be fairly said, didn’t like it at all. He was living in obscurity in Brazil, under an assumed name, when someone who had seen the movie put two and two together and ratted him out. With several nations wanting to try him, he was extradited to Germany. He died in prison before the 1970s were out.
ODESSA is a but of a fictional construct, at least in its size and centralization. There probably was no single overarching Nazi escape organization — they were smart enough to realize that, when one must go underground (as Nazis had had to do from time to time before taking power) you need compartmentation, not centralization; and definitely not German efficiency! The US captured the entire SS Personnel Office files, and didn’t give them to the Bundesarchiv for decades, for fear that irredentist Nazis or sympathizers would eradicate the files of fugitive SS-men.
There is a sub-plot involving German guidance systems and missiles. German scientists and industrialists did indeed assist Egypt, during the days of Nasser’s pan-Arab call to greatness, with aircraft and missile projects. While money and technology were factors in the trade, mutual antisemitism can’t be ruled out as a motive. In the real world, the Egyptians didn’t have enough captive Jews to build new pyramids….
What’s that excrescence on the end of his Smith & Wesson? Oh brother!
There’s not a lot of gunplay, but what there is will set your teeth on edge. Yes, the good old silenced revolver shows up in a critical fight scene, going “pthutht”. It is, in fact, the most featured firearm in the show. (Although Roschmann keeps a Walther PPK in a drawer, fortunately without Nazi grips).
The bottom line
The ODESSA File is an entertaining 70s caper film, with a few little snippets of real tradecraft in it, and some film noir angles and lighting that will entertain you. It was shot partly on location in Bavaria, and the performances (especially Voight’s and Schell’s) are outstanding. There’s a nice twist at the end. Taken together, it’s enough to make you forgive a silenced revolver.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film. We watched it on a movie channel, where it occasionally shows up.
Unfortunately this inexpensive ($6.99) DVD is a fullscreen butcher job, as are all US format DVDs. There is a $29.95 widescreen version, but it is a PAL Region 2 (Europe) disk. That will not play in a US player; many travelers have a multiregion player, but most people don’t.
- Amazon Digital Video ($3.99 to rent).
The Digital video is supposed to be widescreen, but we haven’t watched it.
Amazon also has the book on which the movie is based, from overpriced ($14!) current paperbacks to the 1¢-plus-shipping vintage copies here:
The book is a different and more complex plot than the movie; each is enjoyable in its own right.
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (64%):
- History vs. Hollywood Page. (none).