The Debt was a taut, grim and tense film, made in Israel in 2007, about three Mossad agents in the 1960s who attempt to bring a heinous Nazi villain to justice. The idea is to go undercover, grab him in Germany, and bring him back to trial in Israel. Things don’t go exactly as planned, but they come out of the experience as national heroes. Years later, though, the past rears its ugly head.
Now, British director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has taken strong material and done what rarely happens in the world of Hollywood do-overs: He’s made a better film. He and his writers have tightened the script, clarified its few weak spots, added a couple of scenes, and come up with a more compelling and exciting movie.
In 1966, three Israeli Secret Service agents — Rachel, David, and Stephan (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas) — head to Berlin with a plan to capture Dieter Vogel — the notorious Surgeon of Birkenau — who conducted inhuman experiments on Jews in concentration camps during WWII. He’s now working as a gynecologist under the name Dr. Bernhardt, and Rachel visits him as a new patient in order to put their plan in action.
Concurrent with this story, we meet up with Rachel, David, and Stephan in 1997 (now played by Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson). They haven’t exactly stayed in touch. Two of them have separated after a troubled marriage, and the third has
been out of the others’ picture for a long time. They’re being brought together again to deal with that long-ago mission — a mission that brought them to national prominence but left them empty shells of themselves.
Both stories are complicated, and Madden keeps a steady hand in letting each of them play out while jumping back and forth between them. One of the best ideas in the re-crafting of the film was to spend more time with the younger versions of the agents. That’s where the meat of the story is.
Madden stages some truly squirm-inducing scenes of Rachel in the doctor’s office, where he’s cold and clinical, and she’s up on the examination table, feet in the stirrups, knowing not only what she must eventually do to this man, but also what he has already done — to members of her own family.
The mood turns nerve-racking when the agents put their plan into action, with major difficulties around every corner. Yet the film introduces an entirely different kind of tension when the Nazi is brought to a sort of safe house, where he’s tied up and handfed. To the dismay of his captors, he finds a way to unrepentantly spout his vile philosophies, to play mind games that he hopes will bring them to a breaking point. The film asks us to wonder who is the real prisoner here. I’m not giving anything away — things go spectacularly bad after this.
Jesper Christensen is chilling in his portrayal of the evil doctor, and Chastain and Worthington know exactly how to react to him for the best emotional effect. Indeed, every actor is top-notch. (As a bonus, there’s a remarkable physical resemblance between Chastain as the younger Rachel and Mirren as the elder.)
While the flashback sequences are more intriguing than the contemporary ones, the film works on every level. The Debt is billed as a psychological action thriller, and it earns it.