Based on the little-seen 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov,” “The Debt” is an attempt to fashion a thriller with smarts – a “Marathon Man” for our time. As is often the case with such attempts, the thrills work out better than the smarts.
Directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), the film has a two-tiered time structure. Beginning in 1997, the story at first focuses on retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and ex-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), whose daughter has just come out with a book lauding their exploits in a daring operation back in 1965-66 when, along with a third agent, David (Ciarán Hinds), they tracked down in East Berlin the notorious Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the Mengele-like “surgeon of Birkenau.”
The operation is dramatized in lengthy flashback. Rachel (portrayed as a young woman by the fine and omnipresent Jessica Chastain), has had no field experience up to this point, but she’s steely and brainy and knows her Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts). She’s also beautiful, which sets up the requisite triangular sexual tension between herself and the young David (Sam Worthington), a man of grave conscience who sees the mission as a chance to bring Vogel’s crimes to the world, and young Stephan (Marton Csokas), who regards the operation in more militaristic terms. All three lost family in the Holocaust.
Vogel, it turns out, has been living quietly as an obstetrician in East Berlin, so Rachel infiltrates his good graces by presenting herself to him as a patient with infertility issues. The scenes between the two of them in his examining room are some of the film’s best: This monster, whose ghastly medical experiments with children are revealed to us earlier in photographs, is seemingly kindly and indulgent. But there’s a shiv of wariness in his questions to Rachel, who can barely suppress her revulsion. “Who recommended me to you?” he asks, and you know why he’s asking.
The Mossad trio has been holed up in a run-down East Berlin apartment, waiting for their moment to strike and smuggle Vogel to Israel to face trial. The extended sequence in which they carry out their mission, along with its inevitable foul-up, has an immediacy lacking in the rest of the film. Madden isn’t a whiz at melodrama but he pushes the right buttons here and gets the job done. What lifts the sequence above the usual run is its core of conscience: Vogel isn’t simply a bad guy, he is, in the movie’s terms, the bad guy. As both an individual and as a symbol, he must pay for his crimes.
But what really happened to Vogel? The film, written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, offers up a few fancy twists on its way to an extended sequence back in 1997 when Rachel, confronted with secrets long buried, must relive the horror of her mission and rectify its wrongs. Even though Mirren is powerful in the role, she is put through a series of paces that lack the dramatic conviction of the flashbacks. The staging of her final confrontation is confusing just when it needs to be crystal clear.
It is probably inevitable that the character who emerges with the most comprehensiveness and credibility is Vogel. The worst human beings, alas, are often more inherently dramatic than the best. When Vogel, tied up in that decaying East Berlin apartment, works his mind games on Rachel and David, “The Debt” turns into an infernal chess game – with most of the prime pieces on Vogel’s side. Christensen is best known to movie audiences as the bad guy in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” It took me a moment to remember that I had also seen, and greatly admired him, in Jan Troell’s “Everlasting Moments,” where he played a man of almost supernal grace. What a marvelous actor.
“The Debt” asks us whether we should lie in order to prop up a greater good. This is, in a sense, an unanswerable question, and the filmmakers don’t seem overly invested in answering it anyway. Although they might have wished for something less conventional, it’s the thrills that make this movie. Grade: B (Rated R for some violence and language.)