by Sawyer J. Lahr
In Theaters Friday, Sept 2nd from Focus Features
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Adapted from the 2007 Israeli film of the same Ha-Hov, The Debt is an espionage thriller that feels unconsciously based on the real-life Mossad espionage story about bringing Nazi war criminal, Karl Adolf, Eichmann to trial. Much like unequivocally evil “surgeon of Birkenau” in The Debt, many Third-Reich doctors performed “scientific” experiments on Jewish women and children who were prosecuted shortly after the war during the Doctor Trials. Eichmann oversaw the death camps and deportation of Jews and was later brought to justice by Israeli-secret agents in 1961 long after the The Nuremberg Trials.
Director John Madden (Proof, Shakespeare in Love) wittingly places our sympathies with the Hungarian Mossad agent, Rachel Singer, played respectively by Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, The Help) and Helen Mirren who returns to the spy genre after Red (2010). Chastain captures the soft but skilled young Rachel who casually falls in love with David (Sam Worthington, Avatar, Clash of the Titans) while coincidentally getting pregnant with Stephan (Marton Csokas, The Lord of the Rings, Dream House). Ciarán Hinds (There Will Be Blood, Stop-Loss, Munich) as older David and Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, Michael Clayton, and Shakespeare in Love) as older Stephan, are perfectly cast against the younger versions of themselves. The secret agents adjust uneasily back to civilian life and must live with the lie they told their country and family years ago.
These three agents have only one mission: to kidnap Nazi surgeon Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) and put him on trial in Israel for the world to pay witness. The story experiments with what would have happened if one of these targets were not brought down; as if the state of Israeli could possibly bring every Nazi war criminal to justice.
Like a good thriller, the grossly terrifying villain plays psychological games with his captors by digging at their emotional wounds from the war. There is a fetid air of vengeance in the espionage plot much like another contemporary Israeli film Walk on Water (2004) directed by gay filmmaker Etyan Fox.
Focus Features distribution bring us another cathartic Nazi-bashing film that appears to open more wounds that it heals. It’s still a little less abrasive than Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) which hammers you over the head with incessant visceral flashbacks of frozen piles of Jews at deportation facilities. The pain is obviously greater than any film can portray. As it’s been said before, as long as there are filmmakers who make holocaust films so well, more will be made.
Sawyer J. Lahr is Chief Editor of the forthcoming online publication, Go Over the Rainbow. He also writes a monthly film column for Mindful Metropolis, a conscious living magazine in Chicago, IL.
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