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