In 1966, in Tel Aviv, three young Mossad agents, two men and a woman whose cheek is heavily bandaged, emerge from the cargo bay of a military plane. They have returned from a secret mission to East Berlin where they found and killed Dr. Josef Vogel (Jesper Christensen), known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, a monster who tortured and killed Jews in gruesome medical “experiments.” The three returnees are greeted as heroes by the awaiting press and government bureaucrats.
Thirty years later the young woman, Rachel Singer, is now a grandmother (Helen Mirren). Her daughter Sarah has published a book about the heroic exploits of her mother and her former colleagues. As Rachel reads aloud an excerpt from the book at a celebrity-studded event, she remembers…
Young Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) joins fellow Mossad agents David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Stephen Gold (Morton Csokas) in their dilapidated East Berlin apartment. For weeks they plan the details of their top secret undercover operation. Rachel and David will act as young marrieds, recently transferred to Germany from Argentina. Rachel will become a patient of Dr. Vogel’s in his fertility clinic.
The three agents are practically exploding from the tension of their assignment and the close proximity of their living conditions. Both men want Rachel. She prefers quiet David but in an impulsive reaction to what she thinks is David’s rejection of her, she sleeps with bossy Stephen, destroying her future with David. She will come to regret this action, and many more, as her life and those of the men unfold in time.
The team manages to kidnap Dr. Vogel but their attempt to flee immediately is foiled. They must keep him tied up in their apartment until they can get clearance to transport him to Israel for trial. But no nation is willing to assist them and come out publicly in favor of the abduction. What had started out with such military precision now threatens to turn into a scandalous failure. One night, while Rachel is left alone with Dr. Vogel, he manages to untie his bonds. He attacks Rachel, slicing her cheek with a piece of broken china. He flees and she crawls after him, shoots and kills him. Or does she?
Thirty years later, after living unhappy lives warped by their secrets, the three retired agents are whipped into a frenzy of conscience. Dr. Vogel has been living in a retirement home in Russia and an eager journalist wants to tell his true story to the world. To protect her daughter from finding out the truth, Ruth agrees to take a final assignment and heads for Russia.
Intercutting between the past (1966) and the present (1997), The Debt tells its gripping story with simple elegance, its horrible secrets escalating into intolerable moral decisions. Anchored by Helen Mirren, all the actors give incredible performances and the switching of roles from young to old is seamless. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), known for the way he brings out award-winning performances from his actors and actresses, proves in this low-budget film that he still has his magical mojo.
When The Debt was over, I left the theatre thinking I had just seen a film that was good but not extraordinary. Then the next day, the images of the film, especially Helen Mirren’s scarred face in the many difficult decisions she has to make, kept coming up. I can honestly say that in the two weeks since I’ve seen the movie, it has haunted me every day. It’s not just the images of the film that are hard to forget — it’s the issues it brings up. What is heroism? What is justice? Is force honorable even in the capture of men who have done grievous wrongs? Can the debts of one generation ever be repaid by another? Serious questions, posed by the film but never really answered–left for the audience to contemplate.
Since I liked the film so much and had no trouble following its subtle clues and the transition between time periods, I was astonished to find out that the film has garnered a lot of negative criticism. It’s been labeled confusing by some, or preposterous, and morally deficient by others. Some have even called it Israeli propaganda. Ken Hanke of the Mountain Xpress even criticized the film for being too well made. Yikes. Obviously I saw a different film than some other people did.
I mention these negative criticisms, because I think they have unfairly affected the reaction to the film and may hurt its box office.
I urge you to see The Debt and see it soon because it won’t be around for very long. If you do miss it on the big screen (a shame), be sure to see it when it comes out on DVD. With the added features that might come with the DVD, it could be as enjoyable as seeing it in the theatre.