‘The Debt’ (2010) Review: The Cost of A Haunting Past

“The Debt” is a fictional spy thriller starring Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, and Marton Csokas as Mossad agents. We meet the agents, retired now, living the life of grandparents in Israel.  We revisit, through flashbacks, the tale of their most heroic mission, when they were much younger, in their twenties.  Their mission target is the infamous “Butcher of Birkenau” Dr. Vogel, played by Jesper Christensen with appropriate sinister evilness in the psychological games that he plays with the Mossad team.  Dr. Vogel is guilty of performing gruesome, horribly disfiguring, often lethal experiments and operations upon Jewish prisoners held in Nazi concentrations camps during WWII.  It is apparent that he does not consider Jews to be of the same race that he is.  Their assignment is to capture and take him to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. Righteous vengeance for the crimes against the Jews during the Holocaust, and the grief of the loss of loved ones during WWII, infuses the team as they work to complete their mission.

“The Debt”, released in 2010, is a remake of an Israeli film “Ho-Hov”, made in 2007.  John Madden is the director. Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan wrote the screenplay.  It is a tense spy thriller that draws you into the drama as the young Mossad agents work to complete their task, and as we see the older retired agents deal with the secret, unfinished business of the mission.

Rachel Singer, as the twenty-five-year-old woman, played by Jessica Chastain, on her first field assignment for Mossad, is the one who puts the most in jeopardy. In her part of the assignment, she is posing as a German Jewish wife living in East Berlin, who is having difficulties conceiving a child. Vogel is now posing as a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology in an East Berlin clinic. While her “husband”, David, portrayed by Sam Worthington, waits outside the clinic, she is the one who must become a patient and submit herself to gynecological exams performed by the infamous butcher “Surgeon of Birkenau”.

Rachel is the one who endures the exam. She must undress, put on the flimsy hospital gown, lay on the table and put her feet in the stirrups. She answers the Dr.’s queries, with fabricated lies, carefully crafted by her team. While the Dr. is examining her, she covertly takes pictures of him with a camera hidden in her necklace.  When the Dr.’s identity is confirmed, she returns for her second visit. While at her most vulnerable, in position, feet in stirrups, Rachel receives a painful injection meant to heighten her fertility.  When she leaves the clinic, she reaches out for David’s hand, needing loving assurance of a husband, not fabricated lies. Her love for David is growing. However, their other Mossad partner, Stefan, played by Morton Csokas, is drawn to Rachel, too. She is drawn into his bed for comfort, as David rejected her. This resulting love triangle grows to entangle them all into life changing actions and compromised the success of their assignment.

On her third visit to the clinic, it is Rachel who succeeds in tranquilizing the Dr. and implementing their plan to steal him away in an ambulance, driven by David and Stefan. The plan to evacuate him at an old railroad station is unraveled as the soldiers on guard are alerted of their presence. The escape thwarted, they barely escape the train yard with their lives. They are forced to hide out in their apartment with Dr. Vogel as their prisoner, while they wait for further instructions from Mossad. We are given a glimpse of the grief that David carries because he lost his family during the Holocaust. Stefan shares this information with Rachel.  With heartless Nazi disdain for the team, Dr. Vogel torments David with caustic comments about the Jews.  During this time, the Dr. also observes Rachel suffering nausea, and tells her she is pregnant.  Later he uses this information to taunt David and Stefan as he determines which one is the father of the child Rachel now carries  This development will cause Rachel to make a choice that will affect her for the rest of her life.  She will pay a dear price that David and Stefan will not have to pay.  It is the beginning of the Debt, the obligation that hangs over their lives for years.

The movie is a taught rope of tension that binds the three together.  Stefan is the cunning leader of the team, who entangles the three into a cover up of their mission.  We find Stefan as a grandfather, played by Tom Wilkinson, Rachel’s ex-husband, now a leading politician, who has built a career of his heroic Mossad mission.  He eventually entangles the much older David, played by Ciarán Hinds, in lethal circumstances.  Stefan also orders Rachel, his ex-wife, the mother of his only daughter, a grandmother now, portrayed by Helen Mirren, to do what he and David cannot do.  She must fulfill a covert assignment, and function as a Mossad agent once again.  To prepare for this role, it has been reported that Helen Mirren lived in Israel, studied the Hebrew language, Jewish History, the Holocaust, and the writings of  Austrian Jew Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of the Holocaust and famous for hunting Nazi’s.

The vulnerability of Rachel, in her youth, in her mature years, draws the heart into this film. David’s grief is shared by any and all who have loved and lost during war, but especially those who share in the outrage of what the Nazi Dr. did to the Jewish prisoners. Stefan rises above the mess of a mission gone wrong, with high ambition of what will be good for their fellow countrymen to hear when they return home.  He is the driving force behind a successful mission, and a valiant hero’s welcome when their plane lands on Israeli soil.  He remains their leader this matter, however wrong it may be, until at last, Rachel makes her own choice and pays the debt.  We are given an insight into what the cost can become, when a debt goes unpaid.

The Debt (2010)

Director(s): John Madden

Actor(s): Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain

Genre: Drama

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