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March 27, 2020

Return from the Ashes

return from the ashes.jpg

J. Lee Thompson - 1965
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Hubert Monteilhet's source novel has been adapted three times by three very different filmmakers. The essential story is of a French woman, Elisabeth Wolf Pilgrin, a doctor, who literally returns from the ashes, that is to say a concentration camp, following World War II. She chooses not to reunite with her husband Stanislaus Pilgrin immediately, but chooses to undergo some cosmetic surgery to repair her facial scars to make her look as she did earlier. Meeting seemingly by chance, Stanislaus does not recognize Elisabeth as herself but as an unknown woman with an almost uncanny resemblance. A scheme is initiated so that Stanislaus will be able to legally get a hold on the wealth Elisabeth has inherited as a post-holocaust survivor. Elisabeth, still pretending to be someone else, is directed by Stanislaus to impersonate his wife.

It's probably no surprise that Henri-Georges Clouzot had first expressed interest in making a film version. Thematically it fits in his previous films with duplicitous characters, plus the novel discusses the concept of Jewish identity, something touched on by Clouzot in Manon. Claire Garrara has an essay of interest regarding the uncomfortable relationship of Jews in France during and after World War II. Clouzot, in his period of extreme artistic crisis sold the film rights to the Mirisch Brothers, with British filmmaker J. Lee Thompson making the first film version. A second version, for French television, was made by Josee Dayan in 1982. No version seems to be available, though what is intriguing is that as a French Jewish female filmmaker, Dayan is culturally closest to the characters of Elizabeth Wolf. Christian Petzhold's Phoenix is the loosest of adaptations, making his characters Germans in post-war Berlin. A more detailed look at the three adaptations can be found here.

Even with those three film versions, Monteilhet's novel is out of print, at least in an English language version. I did get ahold of a British paperback edition that was a tie-in to the 1965 release of Thompson's film. Julius J. Epstein has a screenplay that has simplified much of the novel, reducing the doppelgänger plot that is something of an inverse version of Vertigo, as well has the relationship between Elisabeth, called Michelle in the film, and Stanislaus being one of gamesmanship between the two. In the film, it is only Stanislaus, the professional chess player, who appears to be doing most of the manipulation.
One of the philosophical debates between Michelle and Stanislaus is from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. And it Epstein who wrote the film adaptation for Richard Brooks. One thing the film got right was casting Ingrid Thulin as Michelle. Originally cast Gina Lollabrigida may have been a bigger name, but physically inappropriate. Thulin looks more like the character as described by Monteilhet, and is especially convincing when she is first seen visibly aged from her experiences in Dachau. Thulin and Maximillian Schell were both the right age for their respective characters.

J. Lee Thompson has done good work in suspense previously, notably Tiger Bay and Cape Fear. It isn't until the last big scene here that there is any real sense of tension. I didn't mind Thompson throwing in a few Dutch angles, but the script spoils the fun by adding an unnecessary expository scene. The film eschews the ambiguity of the novel for a clear, moral ending. Even taken on its own terms, Return from Ashes comes across as an impersonal, compromised film with insights no deeper than glances at the concentration camp tattoo on Ingrid Thulin's arm.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 27, 2020 07:54 AM