Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Debt

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert’s Review -

The Debt (directed by John Madden, screenplay cowritten by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan based on the 2007 Israeli Film Ha Hov by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum) is a post-Holocaust / Mossad espionage thriller with a surprisingly universal theme that transcends both WW II/recent history and even the spy-thriller genre.

In the story, a team of agents from the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad composed of Stephan Gold (played by Marton Csokas), Rachel Singer (played by Jessica Chastain) and David Peretz (played by Sam Worthington) are sent to East Berlin in 1964 (after the building of the Berlin Wall) to abduct and bring back to Israel for trial an infamous Nazi war criminal named Dieter Vogel (played by Jesper Christensen).   Dieter Vogel, was said to have managed to change his identity and find work as a gynecologists at an utterly non-distinct clinic in East Berlin under the name of Dr. Bernhardt had been wanted as “the Surgeon of Birkenau” for a sadistic series of medical experiments that he was to have conducted on Jewish prisoners at the Auschwitz-Bierkenau concentration camp.  The scenario in this thriller was a conflation of the actual abduction and bringing back to Israel for trial of Adolf Eichmann and the search for Dr. Joseph Mengele who, in fact, had conducted horrific medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the addition of a complex Cold War twist.  After abducting Dr. Bernhardt/Dieter Vogel, the team had to smuggle him from Communist East Berlin past the Berlin Wall to West Berlin (under Western Allied control) and then back to Israel. The story also resonates well with another true Israeli operation dramatized in the movie Munich (directed by Steven Spielberg) about an Israeli hit squad was sent out to assassinate the Palestinians responsible for the abduction and killing of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

The mission in the fictional scenario of The Debt doesn’t succeed as planned.  But rather than face possible sanction by Mossad and admit failure to both country and their families, prior to returning to Israel the three decide to spin the mission into a success – after successfully abducting him, they were unable to get Dieter Vogel over the East Berlin border _but at least he was dead_.  (Was he dead?  They weren’t sure. But they were sure that neither Vogel nor the East German government would want to admit that he was still alive).  So they come back to Israel and become heroes.  The abduction plan didn’t come out as planned but at a time when Israel desperately needed heroes -- a few years before the impending 1967 Six Day War that _changed everything_ in the Middle East -- Israel and the Jewish people were given heroes in these three's apparent success and appeared once again to have been successful in avenging past Nazi-era crimes.

Flash forward 30 years to 1994  Rachel (now played by Helen Mirren) and Stephan (now played by Tom Wilkinson)’s daughter had just launched a doting book about her parents’ glorious exploits, and David (Ciarán Hinds), who never was comfortable with the lie and (perhaps above all) with the adulation that the three had received on account of the lie, returns into the other two’s lives (after many years away) with news that a Ukrainian journalist claims have interviewed an elderly man in a nursing home outside of Kiev who claimed to be “The Surgeon of Birkenau.”  What to do now? 

The rest of the movie about resolving that question...

I found the movie to be surprisingly universal in scope.  Sure most of us (or our parents) never were Mossad agents trying to bring former Nazi War Criminals to justice.  However, our lives (and our pasts) are generally more complicated than how our children (or the outside world) would understand them and our parents’ lives were generally more complicated than how we understood them certainly as children.

[Another great literary/cinematic expression of the actual complexity of a person’s life vs the way the outside world may see it could be found in Michael Ondaatje's book (and the movie based on it) The English Patient.  In that movie, on one level all that the audience saw of “the English Patient” was a man almost completely covered (head-to-toe) in bandages.  But the person _under those bandages_ had once lived a _full and even scandalous life_, this story making-up much of the rest of that film.  Milan Kundera also played with the theme of the difference between the actual history of our lives and the way others remember them already _somewhat_ in his book Unbearable Lightness of Being but _especially_ in his subsequent book Immortality].

So a good part of the drama in The Debt becomes how to shield one’s daughter from the reality that her parents weren’t as great as she thought they were (or how to somehow break this to her).  It becomes a great story, that most of us already “of a certain age” could certainly appreciate ;-)

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