Film Review: The Debt

As I stated yesterday, Elsa and I went to see The Debt starring Dame Helen Mirren.  Mirren is a fabulous actress;  she adds class to any project she does so I was keen to see it.

The_Debt_PosterThe film is about three Mossad operatives in East Berlin who conspire to kidnap notorious Nazi Dr. Dieter Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau and take him to Israel to face trial for war crimes in 1966.  This is a take on the kidnapping in Buenas Aires of real Nazi Adolph Eichmann who stood trial in 1961. The film is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name by Assaf Bernstein.  This version was directed by John Madden based on a screenplay written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straugha.  The operatives (Rachel, David and Stephan) are played by six people, three younger in 1966 (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas), and three older (Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson) in 1997. Vogel is played by Jesper Christensen.

The story begins in 1997 when Rachel’s daughter writes a book about her mother’s involvement in the mission, and jumps back and forth in time to show us events might not have been what they seemed. To avoid spoilers, I’ll say that things unravel from there.

Having not seen the original, I had no clue about this version.  It’s billed as a suspense thriller and doesn’t disappoint.  It’s more than just the intricate staging of a kidnapping however.  There’s a strong psychological component to it.  The operatives have to reconcile their feelings between the mission (all of them had relatives who died in the concentration camps) and getting Vogel to Israel unharmed.  There is a subplot with a sort of menage a trois between Rachel and her two colleagues which seems unnecessary but is a handy vehicle to showcase the hollow souls created by traumatic childhoods.  Vogel is not painted as a sympathetic character.  He is more of a scientific opportunist than a true believer; his deadly contempt for the Jews stems apparently from their unwillingness to save themselves.  Vogel’s monstrousness and those like him haunt the lives of the operatives over the course of the film.

Mirren of course does a marvelous job as the older Rachel in her usual cool understated style.  The rest of the cast turns in strong credible performances thanks to the even direction.  Even Sam Worthington, who I found wooden in Avatar, stretches himself and made me take a new look.  The pacing is even; most of the action suspense occurs in 1966 but the fallout happens in 1997 supplying the psychological suspense.

This film asks a lot questions besides the big one (SPOILER).  Elsa and I left the theater debating the purpose of continuing to have World World II trials in the 21 century.  Most recently German officials in 2009 brought to trial Nazi guard John Demjanjuk who has been granted US citizen and worked for 30 years as an auto worker in Ohio.  This man was 89 years old and had ailments so serious he didn’t know what was going on.  Many of the witnesses were either dead or could not identify him after all that time and there was no definite way to prove who he was. In 2011 at age 91 he was convicted of accessory to murder and sentenced to 5 years in prison with a suspended sentence.  Was justice being served by prosecuting a very low level Nazi functionary who no longer knew what was happening to him or is it pure revenge?  Should these criminals be pursued no matter what to prove the point that war crimes should never escape justice, disregarding the fact that higher level Nazi criminals were granted amnesty and asylum by the Allies in the late 1940s and early 1950s for the knowledge they possessed?  Elsa and I could not come to a consensus, although we both agreed the line between justice and patent revenge is almost indistinguishable.

If you’re looking for a mindless action thriller, this isn’t your cup of tea.  But if you want a suspenseful thriller about a grim period in history which gives you food for thought long after you’ve left the theater, then I highly recommend this film.

Rating: 4 stars


5 thoughts on “Film Review: The Debt

  1. Sounds like a fascinating film, thanks for reviewing it. 🙂 Had heard about it but didn’t know what it was about.

    With the discussion, I’m not sure either. On the one hand, yes, it’s getting a bit silly to chase senile old people who are at death’s door anyway. On the other hand, is age a good enough reason to escape justice? Should you really be able get away with the atrocities of the concentration camps just because you’ve managed to evade justice since 1945 and have now gotten old? Doesn’t sound right. “We’ll let you off because you’re gonna die soon anyway” … while it’s true, and they are, it still doesn’t match the crimes they committed. Difficult, difficult …

    • I recommend this movie; it’s quite thought provoking.

      Yes, I’ve gone back and forth on the ancient criminal. I supposed it all depends on how one defines justice and when it becomes revenge and if that’s appropriate. They spent 25 years and who knows how much money pursuing that guy and in the end he spent a total of two years in prison. (He was tried before on the mistaken identity of being Ivan the Terrible.) I can’t help wondering if anybody felt justice had been served in the end.

  2. I haven’t seen the film. On the other question:

    Istopped following Demanjanjuk closely at some point in the 1990s, because the U.S. Justice Department seemed to make so many mistakes, but often when these people are extradited to or tried in Germany, they are convicted but then released because they’re considered too old to serve prison time. (I believe this wouldn’t happen in the U.S., but it happens in Germany a lot. The defendant’s lawyers successfully sue to get him out for medical reasons. These people very, very rarely die in prison.) The point is seen not to be punishing them personally so much as establishing their guilt in a court of law. On the whole, the historical record of convictions in Germany anyway shows that the punishment rate for participation in the Nazi genocide of the Jews was very low (most people involved were either never charged or got off with a slap on the wrist) and the level of punishment in terms of time served was also in my opinion disproportionately low in comparison with the level of crimes committed (the death penalty has been abolished in Germany since 1945), even when those people were tried and convicted within fifteen-twenty years of the crimes they committed. The Demjanjuk case was complicated because the first extradition was to Israel — which has the death penalty. That made a big incentive for him to lie, I think, because even if he wasn’t Ivan, they’d have kept him and tried him for whatever it was he actually did. The steps at the end of the whole journey were overdetermined by the ones at the beginning — once he established a lie as his identity, he couldn’t admit that he’d lied because of the denaturalization proceedings in the U.S. and the potential for perjury charges, one assumes.

    On the whole matter: Just as genocide is a crime against humanity and not an ordinary murder, the point of the conviction has to be saying that we as a society will not tolerate this kind of behavior. I don’t think that point has a statute of limitations on it and I don’t think it depends on whether people are publicly executed or their sentences are suspended. Demjanjuk suffered more from his long, long history of sitting on pins and needles waiting for the hammer to fall than he ever would have in jail, I’m sure. Genocide is a threat to the moral order. This point needed to be made clearly, above all, in Germany. I leave the question of how people who suffered in concentration camps in the 1940s feel about it out.

    • I understand your point. It just seems from a practical standpoint that by the time Demanjanjuk was lying semi-conscious on a gurney for his last trial, you wonder if he was even aware anymore. Certainly living with a sword over his head all those years was a sort of justice. But by the time he’s half dead and gets only gets a 5 year suspended sentence, I wonder if the last trial was worth it. Frankly after all that, I was surprised by the German justice system. Thanks for giving me an insight.

      • It is really expensive. Germany devotes tons and tons of resources to this activity — there are colossal archives of records and huge staffs of people who research the cases and bring them to trial. But I guess I’d rather they devote the time to the activity than say justice is unimportant.

        Another component of it is that the people who conduct most of these prosecutions in Germany now are approximately my age or a little older. So they have no memories at all of the war years. The defendants (justly) accuse them of not really having a clue of what the 1930s and 40s were like.

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