Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington star in "The Debt,â the powerful story of Rachel Singer, a former Mossad agent who endeavored to capture and bring to trial a notorious Nazi war criminal-the Surgeon of Birkenau-in a secret Israeli mission that ended with his death on the streets of East Berlin. Now, 30 years later, a man claiming to be the doctor has surfaced, and Rachel must go back to Eastern Europe to uncover the truth. Overwhelmed by haunting memories of her younger self and her two fellow agents, the still-celebrated heroine must relive the trauma of those events and confront the debt she has incurred.
The year is 1997 in Tel Aviv, Israel, and the lead female character's daughter has just published a book chronicling her mother Rachel (Hellen Mirren) and father Stephan's (Tom Wilkinson) secret mission in East Berlin during 1965-66. Rachel and Stephan were joined on this mission by David (Ciaran Hinds), a man who in the first minutes of the film finds himself in a desperate situation, the outcome propelling the rest of the story along. The Debt begins in the present-past but the majority of the film is told in flashback, to offer the viewer the real story behind what happened during their mission to capture and send back to Israel the Nazi war criminal Doctor Dieter Vogel, a man who tortured Jewish people for Nazi medical experiments.
The lead-up to the beginning of the flashback sequences is plagued with tension, and hidden secrets. Everything is hidden from the viewer except the guilt washed across Helen Mirren's face as Rachel. The story her daughter has published is obviously full of lies, and it is up to the viewer to try and guess just what Rachel, Stephan, and David hid over 30 years ago. This set-up is for the most part very enticing, and a great mystery sets itself up in the process. As the plot unfolds in East Berlin it remains wholly interesting, thanks to the excellent performances by all of the cast members, as well as the historical significance of the story. The capturing of a Nazi war criminal, and a doctor who performed experiments no less, is enough to keep even the most easily distracted viewer engaged.
The issue with The Debt comes when the secret is revealed. It is not a great twist, nor original; dull and predictable are more accurate adjectives. As the film moves back into the present this level of predictability, and dullness, only becomes greater when Rachel embarks on a mission to make things right over their lies. Adding insult to argument is the completely ridiculous climax that will leave anyone thinking how impossible the entire scenario is, given the age of the characters at this point (no ageism intended but it is seriously inconceivable). The Debt has a strong story in the beginning, and enough of the needed elements to deliver a significant filmic achievement, if not for the faulty ending and lack of originality.
When the flashback sequence begins everyone is now in their younger forms and the real character's motivations and personalities begin to surface. The older versions of such characters are a bit bland, and forgettable, even with the excellent portrayal's by Helen Mirren, Tim Wilkinson, and shamefully brief Ciaran Hinds. Rachel is now played by Jessica Chastain, David by Sam Worthington, and Stephan by Marton Csokas. All of the three younger actors perform beyond expectations, even in the small capacity for emotion the script affords them. Chastain's Rachel trembles at the thought of being in a room with Doctor Vogel, and the terrified look on her face is enough to understand the great trouble this mission is causing her emotionally. Worthington's David is the quiet man, the one who does not show what he is thinking or feeling until his ultimate breaking point arrives and it is a powerful moment. The man in charge of the mission, Stephan (Marton Csokas), is the strong-willed power player who wants for nothing except that which he controls. These three characters, and the actors who portray them, add substance to the story with their personal struggles and romantic entanglements but it is the Doctor himself, played by Jesper Christensen, who overshadows them all.
The first time we meet Doctor Vogel is in his examination room. Rachel has scheduled an appointment, posing as a wife who has been having difficulty conceiving a child. Dr. Vogel walks out from behind a make-shift wall to stand in front of a frightened Rachel. His face is kind, and his actions gentle as he begins the examination and asks Rachel questions. But there is something in Christensen's delivery of Vogel's lines, small ways in which he crooks his head, or asks questions that should they be answered a specific way by Rachel may put her at risk, that immediately marks him as a threat. When Vogel is captured things get very interesting indeed as he manipulates his way into everyone's minds. He speaks to them, not expecting an answer, but getting one by the emotions he evokes in their faces, causing them to breakdown in front of their captive. Dr. Vogel is the enemy, a cruel man who has committed unbelievable crimes, and Christensen's creation of this character will leave any viewer with a knot in their stomach at the tormenting ways of his calm, cool demeanor.
September 2, 2011
1 hour 44 minutes