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DEBT, THE (director: John Madden; screenwriters: Matthew Vaughn/Jane Goldman/Peter Straughan/based on the film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum; cinematographer: Ben Davis; editor: Alexander Berner; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Tom Wilkinson (Stephan), Marton Csokas (The Young Stephan), Helen Mirren (Rachel Singer), Jessica Chastain (The Young Rachel), Ciarán Hinds (David), Sam Worthington (The Young David), Jesper Christensen (Dr. Vogel), Romi Aboulafia (Sarah Gold); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Matthew Vaughn/Eduardo Rossoff/Eitan Even/Kris Thykier; Focus Features; 2010-USA-in English-some German and Hebrew with English subtitles )

The intelligent espionage thriller presents us with a moral dilemma, as it wonders if the truth will set you free and if living with a troubling lie could possibly lead to insanity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”/”Ethan Frome”/”Proof”)directs this gripping remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller, based on the film Ha-Hov by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum. Writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan keep the story filled with old-fashioned suspense. The intelligent espionage thriller presents us with a moral dilemma, as it wonders if the truth will set you free and if living with a troubling lie could possibly lead to insanity. Its main problem is in its execution, as Madden can’t find a clear way to bridge the gaps between a story that spans many decades–going from a Holocaust tale, a cold war tale and finally to a modern-day political intrigue story about duplicity in the spy business that touches on the meaning of national honor.

The movie veers back and forth from 1966 East Berlin and 1997 Tel Aviv, and with an exciting final stopover in Kiev.

It opens in 1997 and the mother of a legendary retired Mossad agent, the scar-facedRachel Singer (Helen Mirren), embarrassingly listens to her admiring married journalist daughter Sarah Gold (Romi Aboulafia) heap praise on her as a great mom, as they’re attending a publicity reception for Sarah to launch her new book about mom’s heroic accomplishment when an agent of Mossad.

In a flashback to 1966, three youthful Mossad agents – Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) – are in East Berlin for a secret mission to capture Nazi war criminal Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and deliver him to Israel for a public trial. Dr. Bernhardt is really Dr. Vogel, the Dr. Mengele-like Nazi, who performed monstrous scientific experiments on concentration camp inmates. The trio, with the pushy Stephan in charge, track Vogel down as an unassuming gynecologist and capture him by using first-time field operative Rachel as bait when she poses as a patient. The agents then plan to put the monster on a train to West Berlin to eventually bring him to Israel for a public trial, but their precision timed plan gets botched and they are holed up in an apartment house in East Berlin holding the bound and gagged Vogel. This ill-conceived arrangement sets a haunting mood, especially when there’s no plan B and the unrepentant Jew baiting Vogel rekindles bad memories for the horror stricken agents–all Holocaust survivors whose families are perceived as ghosts. To add to these emotional complications, the agents are involved in a love triangle. It’s extremely difficult to keep their mind on the mission, to be able to stand looking at the monster without harming him and to express their love for each other. What really happened in East Berlin becomes a secret that only the agents know and must live with. When we return to 1997, we find the guilt-ridden David returning to Tel Aviv after traveling the world for years on his own salvation mission; the book getting a lot of publicity and bringing the heroic story of the slaying of Vogel into the news again; and an unhappy Rachel, divorced from her wheelchair-bound bossy career-minded intelligence officer husband Stephan, not talking about what bothers her. There’s also the question of the debt that still has to be paid for those not surviving the camps.

For a mainstream action-pic, it puts a lot of meat on the plate. But with great actors such as Mirren and Wilkinson, displaying splendid nuanced performances, the meal remains hot throughout.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”