Star Rating: 4/5
When it comes to films about Mossad operations, such as Munich or Raid On Entebbi, they have a unique appeal that the average spy/secret agent movie doesn’t have. Undoubtedly, this is due to Mossad’s exceptional stealth and ruthlessness to find and deal with Israel’s most dangerous enemies. The highly enjoyable The Debt, once again, gives credence to the capabilities of the Israeli secret services.
The Debt is not a true story and is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film with the same title. The movie is based in mid-1960s East Berlin, and the latter 1990s in Israel. The plot is about three Israeli secret agents, David (when young, played by Sam Worthington – Avatar I–III, Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans; when old, played by Ciarán Hinds – The Rite, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Woman In Black), Rachel (when young, played by Jessica Chastain – Jolene, The Tree of Life, The Help; when old, played by Helen Mirren – The Queen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Eye In The Sky) and Stefan (when young, played by Marton Csokas – The Bourne Supremacy, Kingdom of Heaven, Dream House; when old, played by Tom Wilkinson – Batman Begins, Michael Clayton, Mission: Impossible IV – Ghost Protocol), who are sent to Soviet-controlled Berlin to find Dr. Berhhadt/Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen – Casino Royale, The Quantum of Solace, Spectre). Vogel was a Nazi doctor at the concentration camp, Birkanau, who experimented on Jews, deliberately deforming them in the name of ‘science’ and ‘medicine.’
David, Rachel and Stefan draw up a clever plan to capture Vogel, get him out of East Berlin, and onto a plane to Israel, so he can face justice. But the plan goes awry, leaving the three Mossad agents to decide how best to deal with the potential consequences.
The Debt’s storyline is realistic and adopts a non-linear timeframe, in a similar vein to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Skin I Live In, since it ventures back and forth between the 1960s and the 1990s. But in contrast to the other two films, viewers are unlikely to find The Debt difficult to follow or overly confusing. This is because the movie has an absorbing plot, filled with suspense. With the music (although nothing noteworthy) pumping the adrenaline, it is doubtful that one will become bored throughout the 113 minutes of the film. In some ways though, The Debt should not have been so long because the last twenty to thirty minutes goes off on a tangent. This is highly injurious to the movie, as it takes away some of its realism.
The Debt may not be factual; nevertheless, it has many truthful and realistic elements. The film has echoes of the successful Mossad operation to capture Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi who was involved in the planning of the Final Solution of the Jews, and the failed one to find the infamous Nazi doctor of Auschwitz, Joseph Mengele. Furthermore, the movie subtly hints at the police-state that was East Germany. Yet, there is no mention of the Stasi, the East German secret police, or the nature of Communist rule in post-1945 Eastern Europe. If one has no knowledge of the era, one will come out of the movie no more informed, which is again to the film’s detriment.
Whether one becomes more knowledgeable about Soviet-ruled Europe is dubious, but from The Debt viewers can appreciate some very real moral and ethical conundrums. The issue of when justice must trump truth, and vice versa, is a messy and complex one. The film illustrates this in a mature way. The same can be said for the problems and stresses that the three secret agents endure, and how they handle it (which they do differently to the agents in Munich); and for the psychological warfare that Vogel plays on young Rachel, Stefan and David. The way Vogel plays on their minds is done brilliantly. Yet, at the same time, it is sickeningly realistic because he always twists facts to ensure that there are elements of truth to his arguments.
Indeed, the actor playing Vogel, Jesper Christensen, is the star of the film, even if his role is relatively small. That he makes Vogel sound plausible and, perhaps, not even the villain adds credence to this. (And considering that Vogel conducted unspeakable experiments on humans, that is no small feat.) Unlike Christensen’s performance, those of the rest of the cast may not stand out, but no-one plays badly. Their characters may not all be explained well, but they all have some depth, which is revealed at various times during the film (although, all of the agents are too young for their supposed ages). With the exception of Sam Worthington (who sounds remarkably Australian for a German-born Israeli), their Israeli accents are believable. Ciarán Hinds, in particular, also looks very Israeli, as do his mannerisms.
Over-all, The Debt is another worthwhile Mossad movie that is gripping and tense, despite not being true. It may not increase viewers’ knowledge of 1960s East Berlin or the Cold War, but one is likely to leave the cinema with a greater understanding for some profound dilemmas that heads of state and secret service agencies, including Mossad, have to deal with. (Now we look forward to the film about the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, the Hamas military operative, who was killed in Dubai, allegedly by Mossad, in January 2010).