It is 1966, Rachel Singer, Stephan Gold, and David Peretz have returned from their mission in East Berlin, and have just stepped off a plane at the Tel Aviv, Israel airport. Their mission was to capture a Nazi War criminal, a Dr. Bernhardt, who had been called The Surgeon of Birkenau.
His extreme experiments came to be called torture at their mildest, and sadistic and inhuman behavior at its worst. Thousands of Jews died at his hands.
The Israeli intelligence got wind of this ‘monster’ and sent three highly trained Mossad agents to take up a position in East Berlin, with the intent of capturing this evil doctor, and bringing him back to Israel so he could stand trial and have his crimes against humanity made known to the world.
In 1997, Rachel’s daughter Sarah Gold has just published a book about this mission. Rachel, Stephan, and David are now 30 years older, and we will come to learn that all is not well with any of them. There are secrets about that mission that are still eating away at them. There’s your set up.
Directed by John Madden, The Debt is a thrilling, suspenseful, and thoroughly gripping film. The method is to run the two stories, one of the past and the other in the present (1997) in a back and forth sequence. We see the mission in its planning stages. Rachel is played by the searingly hot (meaning in demand) Jessica Chastain, who in the course of just the last few months has appeared in our movie theaters as the ethereal wife in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, as a white trash. Marilyn Monroe-esque society wanna-be in The Help, and now, as an Israeli Mossad operative in a divided Germany and a divided Berlin during the cold-war era.
Chastain gives us a strong effort as the point person on the mission. She’s not in charge, but she has the key role, as she has to not only make contact with the been-in-hiding since WWII Nazi doctor, who now is called Dieter Vogel, and works as a OB-GYN doctor, but she will have to be examined by him, ‘… this is my hand and this is the speculum’ and be the one to subdue him.
Helen Mirren plays the older Rachel Singer. Mirren has a stately presence about her. Her face is marvelous to watch as she can convey a plethora of emotions all without seeming to be ‘acting’. She will be the one to make things right as in settle the debt, which isn’t about money. Instead it is about obligation and redemption, and even more so, she will be the one to clear the air, as in ‘the truth shall set you free’. She too will be the point person of the modern or present day segment.
The other two men on the mission were David Peretz played respectively by Sam Worthington as the younger David, and Ciaran Hinds, as the deeply troubled older David. Stephan Gold was the leader of the mission in ’66, and was played authoritatively by Martin Csokas. The older Stephan is played by Tom Wilkinson whom I loved in The Patriot as General Cornwallis, and as the unfortunate attorney, Arthur Edens in Michael Clayton.
Both of these younger men will be deeply attracted to Jessica Chastain’s Rachel Singer. One of them will act on this fact and one won’t.
- Gold: No matter what – the secret stays in this room – between us.
In any event, when you’re not sitting on the edge of your seat, or clasping the arm rests in a steely grip because the suspense is so potent – you’ll have much to think about along the lines of truth, justice, and morality. The film has great pace to it, and quite often you will be shocked to the extent of an out-loud gasp, or a shudder because of the way you’ve just been surprised so drastically.
On the other side of the transaction – Jesper Christensen – has the unforgiving role of the Nazi Doktor. Once you get past your revulsion of him, which is all third hand as we only see a few horrific photos of a couple of his victims, your opinion of him comes from your imagination of what he did then. But once he begins his examination of Rachel, and then once he is captured by the Mossad agents, your view becomes even more tilted against him as we watch as he plays mind games with his captors. Despite their skills, and their training, he was able to get inside of the heads of both young Rachel and young David.
This film should be important to those of you who have tired of automobile chases, shell casings from automatic weapons, and endless explosions. This is a film that engages your mind, entertains you because you will absolutely get caught up in the story, and asks you to think of evil as not just a historical abstract, but instead as a living, breathing person, who despite his advanced years, still can strike terror into your hearts.
Watch this featurette about the film with some comments by the actors, the director, and the producer.