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The Debt

The Debt

By Frances Taylor • March 29th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Universal Pictures UK

Release date: January 23rd, 2012
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 113 minutes

Director: John Madden
Writers: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan
Composer: Thomas Newman

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Helen Mirren, Cairan Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Jesper Christensen

In the same way that Sarah’s Key (2011) brought back to life a horrific era in history through a fictionalised account, The Debt brings us a fictionalised account of the fallout of the Second World War, the Holocaust in particular.

In 1949, Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service was formed. One of it’s primary purposes was to comb the globe for notorious Nazis, including Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann, capture them, and take them to Israel to stand trial for their crimes.

I was interested in this film because of it’s history and politics. I wanted it to flesh out the factual bones of the war with stories about people, to bring history to life and educate me.

The Debt

Adapted from the Israeli film Ha-Hov (1997), The Debt weaves together a web of lies, heroism, love, and betrayal. Switching between 1965 East Berlin and 1997 Israel, the film follows Rachel (Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren), David (Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds) and Stephan (Marton Csokas and Tom Wilkinson), during and after a Mossad operation to kill a Nazi war criminal, the fictional Surgeon of Birkenau, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).

It begins in 1997, as Rachel and Stephan’s daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulifa) presents her with a book, written about the mission, hailing the trio as national heroes. David is absent from the party, however, he has just committed suicide; the first clue that not all was as rosy in East Berlin as Sarah has written.

In 1965, the three agents are living in a leaking, mouldy apartment. A momentarily tense but inevitable love triangle arises, whilst they play the long game in tracking down Vogel who is working, ironically perhaps, as a gynaecologist. There mission is to capture Vogel, sneak him into West Berlin, and fly him back to Israel to face trial for his atrocious crimes. Proceedings don’t quite go to plan, and Vogel is left tied to the radiator of the Berlin apartment. On New Year’s Eve, things come a dangerous head for the four involved.

The Debt is firstly an action-espionage thriller, pitting good against evil. Taking a step back, it asks some larger questions about truth and justice, whether means can justify an end, and the notion of a greater good. Is it sometimes better to lie to provide hope and justice to a nation in need of it, and what, if anything, can make up for that lie over 30 years later?

The Debt

Older Rachel and Stephan make some questionable decisions, and we’re asked what we would do instead, how would we behave differently in their situation?

Despite it’s highly political backdrop, The Debt remained aloof. Though fictionalised, I think the picture could have benefitted from a little more historical context other than “Vogel was a Nazi, we’re Jewish, we should kill him”. By keeping the focus so black and white, the film lost some of it’s dramatic intensity.

Whilst Mirren gets top billing, I was much more captivated by Chastain’s performance. She pours vulnerability into a desperate character, but steels her with resolve and a spine to rival David’s. The scenes between her and Vogel in the gynaecologist’s office were tense and uncomfortable; Chastain really carried this plot. Worthington and Csokas were commendable too, both resolute in their convictions.

I was more impressed with the younger characters on the whole, they got so much more of the script’s excitement. Whilst the older characters are more interesting in certain ways, and ask the big questions of the film, they are also less exciting and their actions are driven by selfishness and shame, making it more difficult to empathise with them. The characters in ’97 aren’t fighting for justice, the greater good, absolution or atonement; they are simply trying to cover their tracks.

The Debt

The structure did not aid this predicament either; the climax of the 1965 plot came just before the 1997 string really kicked off, but it was anti-climactic and if I had been emotionally involved with the movie, I think I would have been spent at this point. The switches between the two timelines were a little clunky, and every time it was 1997, I was waiting for it to switch back to ’65 again.

Madden ambled to the point of the film too, the pacing being quite slow especially in the beginning and the end.

The shots in Berlin, however, were often very good, particularly when Vogel was involved. Christensen nailed down Nazi menace with an antisemitism that made me squirm, detailing why the Holocaust was able to happen. He manipulated his captors, mentally torturing them in their weak spots, then asking innocuously about the welfare of his wife as though he had done nothing wrong. These scenes were the strongest in the film, providing conflict and tension.

The Debt delivers a twist that I did not see coming and raises some social and moral questions which we can relate to modern-day situations, but ultimately, did not scratch much below the surface.

Frances Taylor

Frances Taylor

Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).

When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.

She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.

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