Based on an Israeli film of a few years back, The Debt is one of those espionage thrillers for adults where moral questions are as important as the suspense-filled plot. The film opens in 1997 at a book launch in Tel Aviv. A young woman named Sarah has just published an account of a dangerous Mossad mission from 30 years before when three operatives went undercover in East Berlin to abduct Doktor Bernhardt, the “Surgeon of Birkenau,” who conducted hideous medical experiments on Jewish POWs. Sarah, it turns out, is the daughter of Rachel (Helen Mirren), one of the three heroes from long ago.
These retired Mossad operatives include Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), Rachel’s ex-husband and the father of Sarah; and deeply troubled David (Ciaran Hinds). There are strange undercurrents among the three that seem at odds with their role as heroes of the Jewish state. Then, news of a shocking revelation is the cue for an extended flashback to 1960s East Berlin, where we eventually discover that truth and the official version don’t fully overlap. Bernhardt had been discovered working as a fertility specialist and young Rachel (Jessica Chastain, Tree of Life) and young David (Sam Worthington, Avatar) are posing as an infertile couple in order to get close enough to abduct Bernhardt and spirit him away to Israel to stand trial. The kidnapping goes well, but not so the attempt to flee across the border. Bernhardt ends up a prisoner in their cramped apartment as they await instructions. By this time, a lovers’ triangle has developed amongst the three agents, and eventually the trio returns to Israel well aware they are unworthy of their fame.
This is an actor’s movie, and the lead performances are compelling. Of particular note is Danish actor Jesper Christensen (Casino Royale, The Interpreter) as the infamous Doktor. Christensen is fantastic at embodying a monster who is human enough to be more unsettling than the stereotypical psychopath. As a doctor doing a pelvic exam he hovers between being creepy and genuinely solicitous. There’s a fantastic scene where Bernhardt, vicious master of mind games, taunts Rachel as she shaves him in hopes she’ll cut his throat and preempt the trial.
Debt’s themes of guilt and honour are well woven throughout the narrative. It does a fine job of mixing the personal with the political and should appeal to fans of thoughtful filmmaking. M