Director : John Madden
Screenplay : Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan (based on the film Ha-Hov written by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Jessica Chastain (Young Rachel), Marton Csokas (Young Stephan), Sam Worthington (Young David), Jesper Christensen (Doktor Bernhardt / Dieter Vogel), Helen Mirren (Rachel Singer), Tom Wilkinson (Stephan Gold), Ciarán Hinds (David Peretz), Romi Aboulafia (Sarah Gold), Brigitte Kren (Frau Bernhardt / Nurse)
A remake of a little-seen 2007 Israeli thriller, John Madden’s The Debt is a cagey examination of the slippery nature of “truth” and the manner in which recorded history can distract us from the reality of what has actually happened. The story centers on three young Mossad agents who are sent on a secret mission in 1965 to track and capture a notorious Nazi war criminal who is working as a gynecologist in East Berlin. That story is framed by events taking place some 30 years later, as a book that has been written about the mission by one of the agents’ daughter is reigniting interest at the exact moment that a small newspaper article published in Russia casts sudden and unexpected doubt over the official version of what happened.
The three Mossad agents--Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), and David Peretz (Sam Worthington)--work from a safehouse in East Berlin as they hone in on Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the so-called “Surgeon of Birkenau” who was responsible for all manner of heinous crimes against humanity while conducting human experiments in the concentration camps. Once they verify his identity, they kidnap him and take him back to the safehouse where they must keep him alive until they have an opportunity to slip out of the city. All of this is being done with the utmost secrecy, and when part of the plan collapses and they aren’t sure if they will be able to get out, there is a real sense of terror and panic at being trapped behind enemy lines with a monster who you must keep alive (the goal is to get him back to Israel and conduct a public trial to ensure that his crimes are known by the world). It never comes to that, but we do not know until late in the film exactly what happened as we see a crucial part of the mission replayed, but with a greatly different outcome.
Most of the first half of the film concerns the mission in 1965, although it opens with the characters in their 60s (played by Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson, who interestingly and somewhat distractingly look nothing like their youthful counterparts). After the past events have unfolded and arrived at what we think is the conclusion, the story then settles into the present day, as Rachel must conduct a new mission to right the mistakes of the past, even though she has not worked as an agent for decades. She is morally torn between what she has done and what she feels like she must do, and we are torn along with her, as we recognize the dubiousness of her enterprise even as we fully understand why she would commit to it (especially since it involves not only protecting what has turned into a valuable historical story, but also for the more personal reasons of not wanting to disappoint her daughter).
The sequences taking place in East Berlin in 1965 are taut and suspenseful, a strong mixture of conventional movie excitement and historical dread, with director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) maintaining an effectively low-key style that allows us to focus on the characters and their plight. Chastain, Csokas, and Worthington are all excellent in their respective roles, especially once their characters begin to develop a love triangle, with the two men, so very different in temperament (Stephan is blustery and domineering while David is quiet and reserved), develop an attraction to Rachel. Rachel occupies the most difficult position, not only because she is romantically trapped between these two men, but because she must offer herself up physically to Vogel, posing as a patient in order to photograph him and verify his identity. There is a sickening tension to the scenes in which she must allow him to examine her, as his rote professionalism and forced charm barely conceal what we know is enormous monstrosity just beneath the surface. That tension between what we see and what we know is crucial to The Debt, structuring it both thematically and narratively and driving it forward to a conclusion that settles the matter of what happened, but leaves the door wide open as to what happens next.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Focus Features and Miramax Films