I’ve waited several years to see this, having learned about it as the first adaptation of the novel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le retour des cendres) that formed the raw material for Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (Germany 2014). It’s a very different film from Phoenix, but representative of its production context. The film is set primarily in Paris but shot at the MGM-British studio at Boreham Wood. I’m not sure if there were any B-unit shots in Paris, or stock footage. It is presented as a very beautiful B+W ‘scope print with Christopher Challis as DoP.
The basic plot offers us Michele Wolff (Ingrid Thulin) who we meet first in late 1945, arriving in Paris by train. She has been in a Nazi concentration camp and has made it back to Paris after a period of recuperation in a German sanatorium. Flashbacks reveal that in 1940 she was a wealthy widow working as a doctor in Paris and with a stepdaughter Fabienne (Samantha Eggar) in boarding school in England. Michelle had taken a younger lover, a Polish chess champion, Stanislas Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell) and the couple were married immediately before she was seized by the Nazis as a Jewish woman. The only other principal character is Dr Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom), Michele’s colleague at the clinic.
When Michelle returns she is unrecognisable after the ravages of the camp but Bovard organises plastic surgery and the main narrative development in the story is that Stanislas does not recognise her, even though she gets back close to how she looked before. He believes the woman he married is dead but hatches a plan to steal her wealth which French law has frozen until death is confirmed or Michele is found alive. The remainder of the narrative becomes a mystery thriller involving the four principals.
The film belongs to the broader 1960s phenomenon of Hollywood films made in Europe. It was made by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists and the novel was adapted by the celebrated Hollywood writer Jules Epstein. But the production was essentially British with John Dankworth as music director joining Challis, by this time one of the leading British cinematographers (including the later films of ‘The Archers’ (Powell and Pressburger), and British heads of department throughout the rest of the creative team. Samantha Eggar was at this point the rising young star of British cinema, having made The Collector with Terence Stamp for William Wyler in the same year. Herbert Lom was established as a fine star actor in the UK, having arrived as a Czech migrant in 1939. Many of the supporting cast were originally French but domiciled in the UK whereas Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell were at this point known across Europe. Thulin, one of Bergman’s company in Sweden in the 1950s, appeared in French, German and Italian films as well as going back to Sweden. Schell was seen as the major German actor of his generation who worked in the UK or the US as well as Germany. Overall the cast of Return from the Ashes do manage to convey a Parisian sensibility, even though they are working in English. This is in contrast to the hairstyles and costumes in the film which, following Hollywood conventions, are faithful to the 1960s more than the 1940s. (Whereas Phoenix makes a good stab at conjuring up the Berlin of 1945-6.)
The producer-director of the film is J. Lee Thompson, a surprisingly prolific director for one who came to directing later than most. Born in 1914 he started to write plays as a teenager and gradually through the late 1930s his scripts were used for stage plays and some films.He continued as a writer up to the time of his war service and briefly afterwards until he got the chance to direct his own work in 1950. His second film,The Yellow Balloon proved to be his breakthrough work and throughout the 1950s he was a prominent director in the UK with several hits which were also critical successes. He gradually moved into larger scale films with international stories and actors and had a huge international success with The Guns of Navarone (UK-US 1961). Several other Hollywood successes followed but by the 1970s he was still making films but most of them were not up to the standard of his 1950s British films. Thompson was a Bristolian and it looks now as if the Bristol-based ‘Rediscovering Cinema Film Festival’ based at Watershed in the city is getting interested in exploring Thompson as a filmmaker. I think Return from the Ashes is a worthwhile film. The source novel has an unusual story which in this adaptation is played with the kind of climactic sequence which prompted the distributors to copy Hitchcock and beg audiences not to give away the ending. The effectiveness of the narrative depends on the camerawork by Challis and the strong performances of the four principals. I find it difficult to describe the intensity of the performances but Thulin and Schell are dynamic. Lom provides the strong and steady background and Eggar provides the beauty, the petulance and the nastiness that the part demands.
The HD print I found online is currently available on the best known video-sharing site and I’m grateful to the person who uploaded it. I don’t think I’m likely to find the second adaptation in 1982 which was made for French TV with the title Le retour d’Elisabeth Wolff (the Michele character).