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Literature / The Odessa File

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Frederick Forsyth's second-most-famous novel, published in 1972 and adapted two years later into a feature film directed by Ronald Neame and starring Jon Voight and Maximilian Schell. Said film also features Mary Tamm, who would later appear as Romana in Season 16 of Doctor Who.

As explained by Forsyth in the novel's forward, the ODESSA of the title has nothing to do with the Ukrainian port, but is an acronym for "Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen" (in English "Organization of Former Members of the SS"), which may or may not have existed to protect former SS members.

Set in 1963 (beginning on the night of the Kennedy assassination), it follows Peter Miller, a German journalist investigating the suicide of a Holocaust survivor in Hamburg. Miller acquires the dead man's diary and sets out to find Eduard Roschmann, the former commandant of the Riga concentration camp. As he does, Miller uncovers a plot to destroy Israel using German electronics and Egyptian bioweapons.

This work contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The film is a rather loose adaptation.
  • Anonymous Ringer, averted: Eduard Roschmann, aka "The Butcher of Riga", really existed. The movie, where he is killed, led to his arrest, unlike in the book. Roschmann fled to Paraguay and died in 1977. It also features as a character the late, great Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal.
  • Argentina Is Nazi-Land: Literally, as the ODESSA is said to be based there (a member asks what he assumes is another one "you're from Buenos-Aires?") Egypt is also Naziland, as several alumni are retired there and the ODESSA is trying to curry favor with Nasser's regime by giving it the means to destroy Israel. Most disturbing, however, is the notion that Germany is still Naziland and that a number of people who really should be dead or imprisoned for war crimes are still walking around. Wiesenthal illustrates this by showing Miller records that show that various police officers he knows from his work as a reporter were all former SS members, and explains, with regards to a current wanted war criminal: "they can't arrest him. He used to be their superior officer."
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The head of ODESSA is named as General Richard Glücks, a Real Life SS leader who served as Himmler's Concentration Camps Inspector and directly oversaw the Final Solution's mass murder and experimentation on Jews and other inmates. The real Glücks committed suicide in May 1945, shortly after V-E Day, though in fairness to Forsyth there were rumors that he faked his death and escaped prosecution like many other high-ranking Nazis.
    • In the film, Miller's SS identity is said to have commanded the firing squad that executed Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr who was killed for his role in the 20 July plot to kill Hitler. Canaris was actually hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp in April 1945, shortly before the end of the war. This was likely a misinterpretation of Forsyth's meaning by the screenwriters, as the novel merely says that Miller's false identity only disposed of Canaris's body after execution.
  • Author Filibuster: Miller's speech to Roschmann denouncing Nazism, both for its obvious evils and for permanently destroying Germany's reputation. This echoes Forsyth's own comments in the book's foreword. That said, the book also criticizes West Germany's government for willingly sheltering Nazi war criminals rather than prosecuting them.
  • Butterfly Effect: It is stated that if Miller had not seen the ambulance, Israel would have been destroyed by bio-weapons in the Six-Day War of 1967.
  • Change the Uncomfortable Subject: The attitude of practically every German over a certain age towards the Holocaust, according to Forsyth. As a result, Miller's generation has an incomplete picture at best of the recent past and how something like Nazism could have happened. More personally, Miller always, always changes the subject whenever someone asks him why he's looking for Roschmann.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Miller starts reading the diary of a man he never knew who had just committed suicide, and finds a passage in it that describes the murder of his father.
  • Conveniently Unverifiable Cover Story: Played with but ultimately averted. The only part of Miller's Gunther Kolb cover story that can't be checked is the letter from his employer, as its purported author is on vacation out of the country. Everything else - his hospital stay and time in a convalescent clinic - is backed by an appropriate paper trail. Even the name Miller gives when asked who identified him is that of someone who actually works at the hospital.
  • Cool Car: Peter Miller drives a Jaguar XK150 sportscar. This leads to Miller being exposed as The Mole, as the Nazis remember his distinctive car. As he also disregards advice to not use it while on his mission, the ODESSA are easily able to track his movements by looking for the car. However, because it has a stronger suspension than ordinary cars, a bomb planted on it does not go off immediately.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Roschmann under the alias Hans Josef Kiefel runs Kiefel Electric to develop bio-weapons for Six-Day War of 1967 to continue his nefarious anti-Semitic campaign of slaughter.
  • Cover Identity Anomaly: Discussed, lampshaded, and ultimately averted in the film. Mossad agents thoroughly prepare Miller for his role as former SS Sergeant Kolb, drilling him in everything from general SS knowledge to details of Kolb's service and the camp where he was stationed. They even fake a scar from Kolb supposedly burning off his SS blood group tattoo. It pays off, as the ODESSA operative he contacts grills him before accepting his story, even asking to see the scar. Played straight with the Mossad operatives sent in before Miller; it's implied they were caught either because they were less knowledgeable about their cover stories or that their circumcisions gave them away.
  • Death by Adaptation: Roschmann survives in the book and escapes to Argentina, where the real Roschmann was discovered in hiding several years later. In the movie, Miller kills him during their final confrontation, making this film Alternate History.
  • Death March: Solomon Tauber describes being on one of these death marches in the last year of the war in the diary he leaves behind and which Intrepid Reporter Peter Miller finds after Tauber's suicide. Tauber notes that during the retreat, SS guards sometimes outnumbered their prisoners 10 to 1, using the task of escorting them as a pretense to their own escape to western Allied lines so that the guards wouldn't fall into Soviet captivity.
  • Dirty Coward: Roschmann. He ran away in battle and escaped to Germany by commandeering a hospital ship in Riga... leaving wounded Wehrmacht servicemen to the tender mercies of the Red Army. When an army captain tried to stop him, he shot him in the back. Miller's reaction to reading this will be important later... .
  • Driven to Suicide: Salomon Tauber. And the Odessa forger, Klaus Wenzer, whose documents Miller steals.
  • Driving Question: Why does Miller insist on hunting down Roschmann? Roschmann shot his father dead during the war.
  • External Combustion: An ODESSA hitman plants a bomb in Miller's Jaguar. However, he overlooks that this particular British-made model has a stronger suspension, so the bomb doesn't go off right away. It does go off eventually though.
  • Faux Affably Evil: When Miller confronts Roschmann, the latter begins to charismatically boast how his actions in Riga contribute to Germany's greatness, however, it runs out when Miller brings up his father whom Roschmann killed to escape persecution from the Allies.
  • Foreshadowing: Miller always refuses to answer when people ask him why he wants to track down Edward Roschmann.
  • Friend on the Force: Miller has one, but it's not as much help as he'd like. On the other side, ODESSA have some of their own working for the police.
  • Grayand Black Morality: The Israelis resort to extreme measures to stop the Egyptians and their Nazi allies from carrying out their genocidal plans, like sending explosive packages to the German scientists in Egypt.
  • Historical Domain Character: Simon Weisenthal, the real life Nazi Hunter, makes an appearance. Eduard Roschmann really was an SS commandant in Riga who escaped to South America after the war.
  • Idiot Hero: Miller does a huge number of things that should, by all rights, get him killed at various points throughout the story. He gets called out on his amateurish actions by a Mossad agent and told never to meddle with professionals again.
  • Ignored Expert: Miller ignores pretty much all the advice given by his Jewish handlers, and nearly gets killed as a result.
  • Interservice Rivalry:
    • One passage of the novel lists the different countries whose intelligence services are at loggerheads with each other... then mentions that Israel subverts this trope, partly because of its being surrounded by enemies.
    • Discussed between the Wehrmacht and the SS. It's noted that during the war, the two organizations largely despised each other, but that since 1945, the ODESSA has put a lot of effort into propaganda convincing Wehrmacht veterans that the SS too were just ordinary and patriotic soldiers.
  • It's Personal: that Wehrmacht captain Roschmann shot? His name was Miller.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Miller isn't acting out of the goodness of his heart.
  • Karma Houdini: In the novel, Roschmann cheats justice and escapes to Argentina.
  • Last Request: Salomon Tauber asks that someone give Kaddish (a Jewish prayer) for his soul, since he has no one to do it for him and doesn't feel worthy enough to do it for himself. His request is fulfilled.
  • MacGuffin Title: The title refers to a file containing details of the new identities of dozens of SS war criminals.
  • Mad Lib Thriller Title
  • Male Frontal Nudity: The Properly Paranoid ODESSA chief whom Miller speaks with asks him to drop his pants, to show he is uncircumcised. While it doesn't exactly prove he was in the SS, it does prove he isn't Jewish (most of the attempted infiltrators are Jewish, one reason why Mossad consider Miller valuable).
  • Master Forger: Klaus Winzer, a side character, was a calligrapher in his youth before being commissioned into the SS to work at forging Allied banknotes; after the war, he goes to work forging ration coupons for the black market and then forges identity papers for fugitive Nazis.
  • Metallicar Syndrome: Miller is told not to use his Jaguar XK150 when infiltrating ODESSA, as a British sports car in 1960s Germany is far too conspicuous, and instead either use public transport or buy a run-of-the-mill Volkswagen that won't stand out. He ignores this advice, he gets rumbled as The Mole immediately, and the Nazis are easily able to track him as a result.
  • Military Brat: It's mentioned that Peter Miller's father once served in the military. This matters later on.
  • Nazi Hunter: Several of these, ranging from the protagonist to the Jewish vigilante group he encounters, as well as some real life cameos such as Simon Wiesenthal.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Klaus Wenzer kept a file on Odessa members as insurance if the Odessa tried to eliminate him. Miller is able to get his hands on the file.
  • Precision F-Strike: In the novel, Tauber describes when a British soldier came upon the camp, and the guard tried to greet him, the soldier responded, "You fucking Kraut pig".
  • Punchclock Villain: Klaus Winzer. He only joined the SS because his father forced him to, and it seems the worst thing he did during the war was forge banknotes for them. He only got into forging papers for fleeing Nazis because a guy paid him to and then blabbed about it to his comrades, resulting in more requests, which he felt it would be unwise to refuse.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Miller delivers a terrific one to Roschmann towards the end of the book (see Author Filibuster above).
  • Spanner in the Works: Miller's hunting of Roschmann comes at a moment when Roschmann is working on a critical Odessa project. The Odessa give him one warning, and then go lethal. Had it been when Roschmann was less important, they wouldn't have treated him so seriously.
  • Spotting the Thread: In the film, Miller blows his cover with an ill-advised phone call to Sigi from the Munich train station - ODESSA has eyes and ears on both ends of the line.
  • Those Wacky Nazis
  • Title Drop: It's done a few times.
  • Wham Line: Miller to Roschmann "That was my father."
  • Worthless Currency:
    • A variation: Part of the backstory of a Master Forger side character was that when Germany was under 4-power occupation, he became an expert at forging various documents as well as Allied "Occupation Reichsmarks"; however, when the new West German Mark was introduced as a currency, every household was given a set amount of the new Mark without any conversion or exchange of existing currency reserves, rendering the fortune he forged worthless overnight.
    • During the War, Winzer was given the task of forging large quantities of British and American banknotes, part of a Nazi plan to derail the Allied economies. However, by the time they were ready the war was nearly over anyway, so most of the fake currency was just dumped into a lake, much to Winzer's disgust.
  • You Killed My Father: The real reason Peter Miller assists in the infiltration of ODESSA. Turns out his father was the army captain Tauber witnessed Roschmann shoot dead in Riga to save his own hide.