Movies: The Debt

Young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and David (Sam Worthington) are hunting for a notorious Nazi surgeon.
Photo: Laurie Sparham, © 2011 Focus Features

It seems to me that when people are discussing why something happened in a movie, it’s not a good thing to hear something to the effect of, “Well, I imagine….” Or, “I guess….” And that is the problem with The Debt, the new film about the hunt for the Nazi known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, a man responsible for hideous medical experiments conducted on the prisoners in a concentration camp.

The film opens in 1997 at a book publishing party. Her daughter has written about the exploits of Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) who, along with fellow Mossad agents, Stephen Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds) went into East Berlin 30 years before to capture Dokter Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) and return him to Israel to stand trial, as did Adolph Eichmann, for crimes against humanity. The book recounts the events then, tells about the things that went wrong and about the heroism displayed by Rachel when circumstances dictated that she kill Vogel.

We’re taken back in time and meet young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), young Stephen (Marton Csokas) and young David (Sam Worthington). Their story plays out in what must have been the bleakest of cities, East Berlin, in the 60s and concludes in Kiev, Russia, in 1997.

The intervening decades have caused the guilt felt by two of the Mossad agents to grow into feelings that cannot be ignored. Thus, the film explores the fact vs. the fiction in the lives of the lionized former agents.

While, as usual, Wilkinson and Mirren are fine, it is Chastain and Worthington who steal the show. We are interested in what is happening to them and hopeful that they will emerge unscathed from the horror that unfolds in East Berlin.

The Debt is adopted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughn from the 2007 Israeli film Hahov, an exploration of the morality of Israel’s pursuit of Nazi criminals. The problem with the script is, as noted above, that it seems a fabric that is too loosely woven when it should be a tightly woven tapestry.

Director John Madden, who previously directed such gentle fare as Shakespeare In Love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Mrs. Brown, here proves very adept at fights and graphic violence, often causing the audience to gasp aloud. The film is rated R for violence, graphic language and sexual situations.

The Debt has a plot full of tension, complex moral issues to ponder and an outstanding cast. With all that, it should have been a better film than it is. Maybe it needed to be told in a linear manner, rather than via flashbacks, but the plot doesn’t do it. And, yet, it’s being touted as “Oscar bait.” That fact is almost as disturbing as the violence in the film. I wasn’t at all surprised that it sat on the shelf for a year before it was released. Just should have been better.