The Odessa File

The Odessa File (1974)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Jon Voight, Maximilian Schell
Extras: Production notes, Theatrical trailer

I had seen "The Odessa File" a long time ago on TV and I remembered it as being a rather good movie. In all honesty however, I had forgotten how powerful this movie really is. Fortunately Columbia TriStar Home Video now gives us the chance to re-experience the entire film in its full glory in a digitally mastered new transfer. Based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth, the author who was responsible for some of the most impressive thriller adaptations during the 70s, "The Odessa File" once again masterfully blurs the lines between fiction and reality.

Peter Miller (Jon Voight) is a freelance news writer and photographer in Hamburg, Germany during 1963. Hamburg is flourishing and usually there is plenty to write about, but Miller is very selective with what he is reporting about. One night he stumbles into the scene of a suicide. Nothing remarkable according to the police, but a diary falls into Millers hands. The diary of the old man who just gassed himself in his apartment.
Miller takes the diary home and begins reading, only to uncover the horrors of the NAZI regime during World War II. The old man was Jewish and spend part of the war incarcerated in a Polish concentration camp under the inhuman grasp of SS Captain Eduard Roschmann (Maximilian Schell). Piece by piece the diary unravels the cruelty, the torture and inhumanity Roschmann put the people in the camp through, in a rage that did not even exclude his fellow NAZI comrades.
Interested and deeply moved by what he reads, Miller tries to find out whether Roschmann had ever been to justice after the war and realizes that the man is still at large and has constantly escaped the arm of the law. He is determined to track down the notorious war criminal and starts his own manhunt. But soon he discovers that he is not up against a single man. Under the surface of society, an organization has formed, called the ODESSA, that protects and re-establishes its fugitive SS war criminals. Before long he finds himself amidst an army of underground NAZIs, waiting to strike again and to dominate the world.

Most of "The Odessa File" has been shot in Germany, giving the film a distinctive look – and sound, I may say. Heavy accents dominate the film, but also authentic settings of Hamburg and especially its St. Pauli district during the 70s. The photography also gives the movie a stark and almost somber look at times, used to emphasize the coldness and inhumanity of the story at hand.

Jon Voight does a good job as newspaperman Peter Miller, although I found his acting a little too overt and loud. Many times it feels as if he is not talking but shouting his lines in an attempt to be heard. Apart from that minor distraction, "The Odessa File" is a harsh and forceful movie, that reminds viewers that under the surface of any society, forces and powers are brewing, only waiting to boil over. In fact, "The Odessa File" is much more a social-critic movie about society’s obliviousness towards such forces, rather than a drama to bring justice to an animalistic war criminal.

Columbia TriStar Home Video is presenting "The Odessa File" in a beautiful new transfer on this DVD. It contains a <$PS,fullframe> presentation as well as a <$PS,widescreen> presentation in the film’s original theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film exhibits some visible grain in selected scenes and the colors of the transfer are somewhat muted, but this is a result of the color scheme used in the film rather than an error in the transfer. This color scheme dates the film quite a bit however, giving it a very strong 70s look. The presentation on this DVD is very detailed, no doubt due to the increased resolution of the <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer. Even when viewed on a 4:3 screen, the image appears very crisp and exhibits a lot of definition. Compression artifacts are not evident in this transfer, making "The Odessa File" a great looking movie with a strong European flair.

The disc contains a monaural English language soundtrack as well as selectable subtitles in English and Spanish. Due to the technical limitations of the production at the time the movie was originally produced, the audio sounds a little harsh with a limited frequency range. There is no notable bass extension and the music, as well as many sound effects appear very compressed in their dynamics, creating an atmosphere that oftentimes sounds very artificial. As I mentioned, this is due to the technical restrictions of the time however and not necessarily a fault on the DVD’s behalf. Apart from the audio track, subtitles in English and Spanish are also part of this release.

A little slim on the extras, this DVD from Columbia TriStar Home Video only contains the movie’s theatrical trailer and production notes as supplements, but especially the trailer gives you a good idea how the film was originally marketed. A commentary track would have been a great addition, given the fact that parts of the story are based on real events. It would also have been very interesting to learn how the political atmosphere was during the shooting of the film on location in Hamburg where the NAZI history is a very sensitive subject.

After all these years and despite the fact that "The Odessa File" has visibly aged quite noticeably, it is still a powerful thriller. Especially the climax of the movie comes across very nicely as it contains and exposes elements of the story that seemed completely insignificant before. Skillfully written with great diversions for viewers to keep guessing, this thriller keeps you on the edge for its entire length, and featuring a first class cast, this movie is undoubtedly one of the most memorable and powerful political thrillers of the 70s. Columbia’s DVD looks great and gives us the chance to see how this stylish thriller plays so well mostly due to its restraints as opposed to furious editing and the apparent violence found in more current genre entries.