In this remake of a popular 2007 Israeli movie, the genre label “espionage thriller” is an understatement. The movie opens in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad agents Rachel and Stefan (married to each other but now divorced.) Then “The Debt” moves quickly and chillingly between the 1960’s and 1997, in search for the Surgeon of Birkenau, a doppelganger for Mengele, the infamous Nazi general who masterminded the medical butchery of the Holocaust.
Helen Mirren, playing the courageous Mossad operative Rachel Singer, appears in 1997 for a book-signing celebrating her Mossad exploits retold by her daughter Sara, who has eulogized her mother in a biography that recounts the heroic capture and slaying of Dieter Vogel, Surgeon of Birkenau. This is no typical role for Mirren but she is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film. That alone makes this film a groundbreaking example for future roles for actresses of Mirren’s stature and caliber.
The story requires two sets of actors–three actors in their twenties who play the youthful Mossad agents of the 1960’s and the three who play the same agents in their sixties almost thirty years later (1997). Sam Worthington (as young David) and Marton Csokas (as young Stefan), share an apartment with Rachel as well as romantic inclinations. Jessica Chastain (as young Rachel) is particularly outstanding since the majority of the film holds together centered on Rachel’s heroism.
It is true that the past leads to the present, and each flashback brings new interpretations of events, but regardless of the mixed and negative reviews some of you may read, the mystery behind the Mossad agents and Vogel are clearly laid out. In 1966, three Mossad agents – Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) – are brought together in East Berlin for a secret mission: capture Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and deliver him to Israel for public trial. Nearly 30 years later, these three gather once again to go back into the field after decades of retirement.
The gynecological scenes with the venomous Vogel in which Rachel has her legs in stirrups on the examination table are chilling. They recall the fear of dentists that “Marathon Man” evoked or the terror of getting into a shower that “Psycho” elicited, but with much more subtlety. In a sneering scene that will be imprinted on the viewer’s brain for a very, very long time, two of the most horrific, unforgivable sentences ever uttered in a movie ring out cruelly from Vogel’s vicious mouth. These excruciating scenes are followed by others. Rachel spoon-feeding the bound Vogel is nausea-inducing in intensity and cunning. These scenes are not for the faint of heart!
The ending is brilliant, if panned by some critics (not all). I thought the plot surprised at every turn, keeping me guessing until the very end. What critics could find lame about this movie’s ending flies in the face of reason to me. I have not seen a movie about the Holocaust as riveting as this one except for “Sophie’s Choice”, “Schindler’s List”, and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” but “The Debt” can’t be categorized in the same genre as these movies either. “The Debt” is also much more than an espionage thriller like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.
I can’t believe critics who panned this movie saw the same film I did! [Warning: this movie can snap and stretch the nerves of the viewer.]