Frederick Forsyth’s novels usually make for good movies. The Day of the Jackal (1973, our review here) and The Fourth Protocol (1987, review here) are among my favorite Cold War-era films. The Odessa File (1974) is not in the same league.
Not having read the novel, I can’t say if it’s the story or the adaptation. It sounds good on paper, though. The year is 1963. A West German journalist (Jon Voight) stumbles on the diary of a recently deceased survivor of the Riga Ghetto. He takes it upon himself to hunt down the SS officer who ran it. That brings him into contact with the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (Shmuel Rodensky) and ODESSA, a secret organization of former SS members.
The plot has some basis in truth. “Odessa”, short for Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen (“Organization of Former SS Members”) was the American codename for a suspected underground Nazi escape program. Although historians doubt it existed, Nazis really did flee Germany, typically to South America, after the war while others continued to occupy positions of power in the new Federal Republic.
The pace of the film is excruciatingly slow and we remain in the dark about Voight’s character’s motivation for much of it. This is not just a twenty-first-century viewer being accustomed to fast action; reviewers complained about the same thing when The Odessa File came out. Other movies — The Day of the Jackal is a good example — are meticulous without becoming boring.
The fact that Voight’s expression barely changes for over two hours doesn’t help. His character — a journalist! — jumps from one extremely dangerous situation into another without ever hesitating.
On top of that, the villains are a little on the nose. There were still unrepentant Nazis in 1960s Germany, but would they really have rented a beer hall (of course) for their reunion and shouted “One nation! One people! One leader!” together? If they did, they mustn’t have worried a lot about being found out.
It’s a shame, because the story has real potential. But the film is one big disappointment.