Film, History, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #43: The Odessa File

June 1, 2011

The Odessa File (1974) brings some good old-fashioned, post-WWII intrigue to the list.  The film begins when German journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight) receives the war diary of Solomon Tauber, an elderly Jew who committed suicide, from a friend on the police force.  The diary tells the tale of Tauber’s experiences in a Riga concentration camp, and details the atrocities committed there by its ruthless commandant, Eduard Roschmann (Maximillian Schell).  Deeply moved by the story, Miller pursues it on his own, learning that Tauber believed Roschmann was still alive, and that the authorities were doing nothing to bring him to justice for his war crimes.  Miller investigates on his own, pitting himself against the ruthless Odessa organization, which is full of surviving Nazi sympathizers, biding their time for a resurgence.  Making accidental allies of Israeli intelligence, Miller risks everything to track Roschmann down and bring him to justice.

But why?  This is the one major problem with The Odessa File, an otherwise nicely structured, old school suspenser.  Miller goes to incredible lengths to carry out his self-set mission, and he mutates rapidly from a reporter into a spy, but the viewer is left to guess as to what’s motivating him to such dangerous extremes.  The answer is something of a cheat, alas:  withheld information for the finale.

Setting that and a handful of other, less glaring plot hiccups aside, the rest is fun stuff:  moody European scenery, rich historical context, and subdued spy tradecraft punctuated by bursts of desperate violence.  The acting is unspectacular, but adequate.  In the end it feels a bit too highly ranked, to me, and it will probably feel dated to the casual viewer, but spy history buffs should find plenty to sustain them.

Related Posts:

You Might Also Like

  • Philip Brewer June 3, 2011 at 8:49 am

    For me, the twist that you object to worked perfectly. I thought the character’s obsession was adequately plausible—a serious journalist on the trail of a war criminal was believable, and I could imagine someone getting in over his head just that way, each step seeming like the right one at the time, even as he got into more and more dangerous territory. So, I found the ending—the reveal of a personal motivation that had been kept hidden—very powerful.

    Perhaps it worked so well because I was rather young (high school age) when I saw it the first time.

    • Chris East June 3, 2011 at 9:58 am

      I’m not sure I object to the twist itself, so much as the way it was concealed…but I guess that’s not uncommon in this type of film. Hardly a fatal issue; I still enjoyed it!