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Whenever a new film is released that somehow involves elements of WWII, it seems more than ever the Holocaust is used to elicit knee-jerk emotion from the audience. Or when Nazis are situated as major characters of a story, they simply fulfill the role of the hideous villain. “Captain America,” is a prime example of a film that takes a Nazi to a comic level as a villain wreaking havoc on the world. “The Debt” touches both on the Holocaust and those that inflicted that horror, that is as much an original thriller as it is a thought provoking commentary on overwhelming power of truth and reality.
In 1966, three Jewish Mossad secret agents were sent to East Berlin on a mission to locate and return to Israel an infamous Nazi, Dieter Vogel, known as the Surgeon of Berkenau, to stand trial for his crimes during WWII. The movie begins in the present, 1997, where two of the former agents, Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) are reunited after being contacted by their third comrade, David (Ciaran Hinds). Rachel’s daughter has just completed a book detailing the events of her mother’s heroism in the mission that took place 30 years ago. In a matter of hours, Rachel discovers that she must face her worst fears that has been following her ever since the day she left behind East Berlin.
The past is a character unto itself in the “The Debt.” Three decades younger, Rachel (Jessica Chastain) joins David (Sam Worthington) and Stephen (Marton Csokas) in East Berlin to help get close enough to their target, Vogel who is working at a women’s health clinic. The men are committed to the mission, but soon find themselves distracted by the added presence of a female. Each of them has their reason for wanting Vogel brought to justice, ranging from revenge to satisfaction.
Jessica Chastain’s performance as the younger Rachel is the glue that binds the entire story together. Rachel appears reserved yet below the surface is decisively strong and brutal. This year has been Chastain’s coming out as an actress, thus far in “The Tree of Life,” and “The Help.” She matches her wonderful efforts in those films equally in “The Debt” as she creates a character that is both tender and brash. As the older Rachel, Helen Mirren is no less impressive as she portrays an intensity that has only grown stronger through the 30 years since the original mission.
Following the capture of Vogel, the three Mossad agents are forced to take vigilant watch of their prisoner in a small apartment. It is during these moments we experience up close the deep animosity that begins to take root in each of them. Jesper Christiansen’s performance as Dieter Vogel is more than just disturbing, as he becomes evil incarnate. David, Rachel, and Stephen all reach their own breaking point as the Nazi doctor creates a living hell for them using no more than a few short words and piercing glances.
“The Debt” hinges on the element of surprise and mystique that surrounds the order of events and the actual truth of what took place during the attempt to take down Vogel. One pivotal scene in the story is seen more than once from different perspectives, altering the entire tone of the of the film near its halfway mark. This movie is constructed as a thriller, and a violent, pulsating one at that. Throughout the entire film, there is a subtle back and forth of deep moments of stillness and quiet followed by clamorous bouts of noise and physical harm, creating an continuous, highly charged atmosphere. And when the story has moments of genuine emotion and sensitivity there is a balance that never forced or simply injected.
There is no doubt that director John Madden’s vision for this story is what makes it work so cleanly. “The Debt” feels like two distinctly different films perfectly sewn into one. On one side is the sequences of 1966 where the characters go through immense turmoil and are permanently scarred by their experience. The present is sort of a catharsis, as Rachel must once and for all close the chapter on a part of her life that has kept her unknowingly imprisoned and shackled. The movie carefully walks the line of playing cat and mouse with the audience, but never to a point that makes the film appear like it is touting its own brilliance or surprising the audience for the sake of shock value.
What “The Debt” is truly after is gradually asking the deeper questions that relate to people’s need for retribution, and the grey areas that exist between fact vs. fiction. The resulting conclusion is compelling, and the film hardly ever misses a beat. At the end, Rachel is presented with a choice, a question: “Can the truth set you free?” Thankfully, “The Debt” leaves that for us to decide.