Three Mossad agents involved in the capture of a Nazi war criminal wind up with secrets about the mission decades later in The Debt.
It’s the mid 1990s and Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) has just published a book about her parents’ work on a Mossad mission in the 1960s that resulted in the death of a Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau, a Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen). The mission made Sarah’s parents — her mother, Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), and father, Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) — national heroes. But something about that mission clearly doesn’t sit well, even after all these years, with Rachel, now divorced from Stephan and long retired, and David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds), the third man on the mission who has also long been retired from the Mossad. And there’s something Stephan, who is now wheelchair-bound but still an important official in the agency, is desperate to keep quiet.
In flashbacks, we begin to learn more about the mission. Young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and David (Sam Worthington) lived in an apartment in East Berlin with Stephan (Marton Csokas), the leader of the mission. Rachel and David posed as a married couple, with Rachel pretending to have trouble getting pregnant as an excuse to see Dr. Bernhardt, now a gynecologist, but who the Mossad believes was once called Vogel, a doctor who preformed ghastly experiments on Jewish prisoners.
The mission is to determine whether this man is indeed Vogel and then to find a way to capture him and smuggle him out of East Berlin. After all, while the mission represents a seeking of justice from one war, it is happening on the front lines of another one. When their original escape plan goes wrong, they end up having to hold Vogel captive, a circumstance that puts them all on edge.
Underneath this, however, even more is going on with this trio. Rachel takes a liking to David but, a restrained man, David is reluctant to show her that he shares her feelings. We learn that he has lost his whole family in the Holocaust — not surprising, then, that he might be afraid to open up to someone new, particularly considering the situation (the mission, three people living in close quarters). Meanwhile, Stephan, arrogant and ambitious, is a bit of a ladies’ man. He might not have David’s deep feelings for Rachel but Stephan finds her attractive and clearly isn’t going to let the moment pass if he gets his chance with her. As time wears on, this triangle adds to the tension of having to deal with Vogel, tension that the former Nazi exploits.
So much of what makes this story so fraught, so surprisingly engrossing has to do with the performances. The young and old versions of the agents are believably the same people — not something movies are always able to accomplish when different actors are playing the roles across time. Because Helen Mirren can make us believe that she is the same person as the one played by Jessica Chastain, we get the full story of Rachel — how she felt then, how it has colored her life. It makes the characters feel much deeper and more layered. For a movie full of international intrigue, The Debt is a very quiet movie, one where the characters don’t give big speeches as much as simply show what it is they’re feeling. David, young and old, is a nearly wordless character at times, but we can sense, or maybe just fill in, more about his personality and his emotions than is stated.
Even Christensen, playing, essentially, the devil, but with subtlety, gives a performance that holds your attention. His character is evil, but not just a cartoon cutout of evil — he is a black hole of a man. The horrible things he did during the war are suggested in the way he is unapologetic and manipulative with the agents in the 1960s.
The Debt is a stronger, more thoughtful movie than its plot description (and its release date) would suggest. A gritty noir, a bleak war movie, a dark romance — The Debt is a solid film that deserves attention. B
Rated R for some violence and language. Directed by John Madden with a screenplay by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan (from the movie Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum), The Debt is an hour and 54 minutes long and distributed by Focus Features.