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April 15, 2024

The Debt: You Owe It To Yourself To See This One

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

Bernie said:

So I know that I have pretty pedestrian taste in movies. I don't move out of my comfort zone by much -- if it doesn't have a BEM* on the poster, or if it doesn't promise to make me laugh, it's a little difficult to get me into the theater. I'm not big on drama, although there have been exceptions. The past couple of years have just played right into my pocketbook. There has just been movie after fluffy movie that was either a great animated story (like Rango or Kung Fu Panda 2) or a CGI extravaganza (like all the comic book super hero adaptations). I have been well satisfied.

Yet every once in while, I remember that I am a reasonably educated and worldly adult, and I feel compelled to see something not shown on the outdoor movie projector at the trailer park community center.

"Dah-ling," I said to Sand. "I feel like theater, real theater, the kind with clean restrooms and cup holders in the arms rests."

"Like one of them dress up stage plays in the big city?"

"Ci-nay-mah, dah-ling, a substantive film experience."

"Oh," she said, but otherwise offered no resistance to my idea, so it was with a degree of apprehension that we went off to see The Debt.

The Debt tackles some very interesting themes. It revolves around the lives of three Israeli Mossad agents, Mossad being the Israeli version of the CIA. They are heroes for their mission to East Berlin in the 1960's to find and bring to justice a Nazi war criminal, Deiter Vogel, the "Surgeon of Birkenau." This character, while certainly suggested by the real Nazi terror Josef Mengele, is fictional, as is this whole story. The Mossad is real, the Nazis were real, the Jewish passion to bring Nazi war criminals to justice is real, but the story is fiction. Nonetheless, there is nothing in this movie that is not excruciatingly believable.

This is a meaty movie. It is a story that examines and exposes its characters on a number of levels. Vogel, for instance, is working as a gynecologist in 1960's East Berlin. In order to gain access to him, Agent Rachel poses as young married woman who is having difficulty getting pregnant. Her first contact with Vogel is as his patient, where she endures a pelvic exam. While this scene is tastefully staged, and even includes Vogel being disarmingly gentle and proper, there is a palpable sense of humiliation, submission and rage that can only partly be offset by patriotism and righteousness of the cause. Rachael is left shaken and vulnerable. The question of what means are justified by the end is no longer an academic one for her. Her one partner, David, a man she loves and will love the rest of her life, is a single-minded zealot who cannot be turned from the mission by compassion, and the other, Stephan, a man whom she will marry but never love, is the self-serving leader of the group, someone who is more than willing to take advantage of Rachel's vulnerability.

The plot thickens when the group succeeds in abducting Vogel, but is unable to get him to get him out of East Berlin. They must hide out and hold Vogel prisoner while waiting for new plans to be made. Vogel begins to work on the Mossad agents, playing mind games with them, trying to distract them to the point of making mistakes. He taunts them with the idea that the Jewish reluctance to embrace any means necessary to an end made them weak and an easy target, indeed not only deserving of the Holocaust, but willing participants in it.

There would be a satisfying story here if just these elements played themselves out, but it is not that easy. Indeed, there are plot twists that ultimately are not resolved for thirty years. For the three Mossad agents, events force them to reexamine their past, and answer once and for all whether the end justified their means.

This is a well done spy thriller, comparable in some ways to the Bourne films, but without the fanciful Hollywood hyperbole. There are no spectacular fight scenes or car chases. There is a stark reality to the movie. This feels like it should be a true story.

The challenge in the telling of this tale was that two casts were needed -- the young Mossad agents in the 1960's, and the same characters thirty years later. The casting was brilliant. Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds play the older agents, and Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington played the young agents. The casting was brilliant. Each actor physically suggested their younger/older counterpart closely enough that there was no distraction as the film moved back and forth in time, and there was not a weak performance in the group. Jessica Chastain as the young Rachel had the most challenging role, and she was compelling in her portrayal. I would not be surprised if she ended up in the Oscar nominations for Supporting Actress.

I also have to admit a fondness for anything Tom Wilkinson does. However, the one to watch is Jesper Christensen as Dieter Vogel. He brings an evil presence to the screen that is chilling. He is arrogant, unrepentant, contemptuous, vile and dangerous. He is good at being bad.

Get the impression I like this film? Good story, great casting, and very strong performances make for a lot of value for the money in this movie. I'm willing to bet this movie will be represented in Oscar nominations this year.

* BEM - Bug Eyed Monster

Sand said:

I don't think I saw a trailer for The Debt before we went to see the movie. The posters with Helen Mirren's face, scarred and grim, and a movie article that this was about Nazi hunters were enough for me to want to check it out.

No disappointment for me! I found the sequences skipping back and forth in time from 1966 to 1997 easy to follow -- wait, not easy, as there was a mystery to be found in Time -- and the acting was excellent, the characterizations clear in both past and present. The tension of the story had my palms sweating, and I know that every dialog which the "bad guy" dominated had me baring my teeth in disgust and revulsion.

In 1966, three Mossad agents are sent to kidnap the Nazi war criminal Vogel and take him to Israel to stand trial for his abominable treatment of Jews during World War Two. The Mossad agents are young, idealistic, and Rachel is unprepared for the depth of horror she must face. Her vulnerability -- and her beauty -- undermine the trio's fortitude. Love, and grief, and fear, and love again echo among them as they strive to fulfill their mission, and how it will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Certainly I would watch this movie again. Yet I doubt that "The Debt" will do well at the box office; movie-going audiences are by and large too young and uneducated (at least in the US) to know about the overwhelming horror of Nazi Germany's decision to kill every human being of Jewish origin that they could find.

Without understanding the horror of genocide, without understanding that a religious people were being systematically hunted down and killed, there is no way for the casual movie-goer who has to be reminded to turn off the cell phone during the movie to comprehend how important it was for the three Mossad agents, Stefan, Rachel, and David, to complete their mission -- successfully! They had to! It was not their lives that depended upon it, but the hearts of their people in their painfully re-acquired homeland, the hearts of the survivors of the slaughter, the hearts of the children whose parents did not survive the slaughter.

If there is a weakness to this movie, it is that The Debt cannot, in 114 minutes, teach an audience that all life is precious, and that any attempt to destroy a strata of human life is monstrous, or that nothing in one's life is more valuable than Truth.

Article © Bernie and Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-09-05
1 Reader Comments
01:39:14 AM
thanks for the review--was thinking about seeing this one
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