After her return from the death camps, does her unscrupulous husband want to love her . . . or kill her?
UK, US / 107 minutes / bw / Mirisch, UA Dir & Pr: J. Lee Thompson Scr: Julius Epstein Story: Le Retour des Cendres (1961) by Hubert Monteilhet Cine: Christopher Challis Cast: Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar, Ingrid Thulin, Herbert Lom, Talitha Pol, Vladek Sheybal, Jacques Cey, Jacques Brunius, Eugene Keeley.
Occupying the same sort of territory as The THIRD MAN (1949), this is the first of—to date—three screen adaptations of Monteilhet’s novel. The other two are:
- Le Retour d’Élisabeth Wolff (1982 TVM) dir Josée Dayan, with Malka Ribowska, Niels Arestrup, Clémentine Amouroux and Roland Bertin, and
- Phoenix (2014) dir Christian Petzold, with Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Kunzendorf.
The latter is covered here.
It’s the winter of the liberation of France from the loathed Nazi occupation. Aboard a train bound for Paris, a disobedient small boy, Robert (Keeley), opens the door and falls out into the night and presumably his doom. All of the passengers in the compartment are distraught, save one. The woman in the corner (Thulin) seems completely unmoved by events. The others are prepared to be critical of her until they notice the numbers tattooed on her forearm; she’s a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps, and her seeming imperturbability is born not from heartlessness but from traumatic alienation and the crude reconstructive surgery that’s been done on her face.
Arriving in Paris, she books herself into a cheap hotel under the name Julia Robert, even though, as the desk clerk (Cey) points out, according to her papers her name is Michele Wolff-Pilgrin. She tells him she wishes to hide under an assumed name for a while . . .
The Michele we first meet (Ingrid Thulin) bears the scars of her ordeals.
Soon, in a prolonged flashback, we learn her story—and that the face she now bears is not the one she had a few years ago, before the torment of the camps and a clumsy reconstruction job after injury.
A widow, by the latter half of the 1930s she was working as a successful X-ray clinician in a Paris hospital. From her late husband she inherited a stepdaughter, Fabienne, whom she rarely saw, just shuffling her around from one English boarding school to another.
One night at her local chess club Michele ran into the impoverished would-be professional chess player Stanislas “Stan” Pilgrin (Schell), who took her for three games of chess to the tune of ninety francs. Later that night, even though she recognized he was a scoundrel, she Continue reading