The horror committed by the Nazis during WWII has provided no shortage of stories. As more true stories from that troubling time are told via Hollywood there is now an allure to tell fictional stories based on some loose version of that era. The Debt does its part as a film about a former Mossad intelligence agent reliving her mission to capture a Nazi war criminal. The screenplay is not based on a true story, instead it takes some horrific facts from WWII and the perpetrators and creates a smart thriller.
Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is legend in Israel. Her daughter recently published a book retelling the events that made mom a hero to her people. In 1965 Singer joined two other agents in a mission to capture and bring back to Israel Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), aka “The Surgeon of Birkenau”. Vogel is based on the real life Nazi concentration camp doctor, Josef Mengele, a man who did monstrous experiments on camp inmates.
The retelling of Singer’s story is done in long flashback scenes with Jessica Chastain playing the young agent. Disjointing at first, the time shifted storytelling is put to good use as the truth comes out in pieces. Time shifting can be a cheat but here it serves the purpose, conveying the unreliable narrative of one character only to be corrected when the details of the present form the truth.
The methodical manner in which the plan to capture and smuggle Vogel out of East Berlin is executed is engaging, as it shows the preparation such operations require. There are no shortcuts. The love triangle that forms between Singer and the two other agents, David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas), is not played as a distracting side plot but rather as at least one key motivator for some of the decisions that each agent makes along the way. The believability of it all remains thanks to strong performances (by both generations of actors) and a steady screenplay.
The primary dilemma at the center of the story is one relevant to today where leaders of countries often opt not to tell the whole truth in order to protect themselves and, often to a lesser degree, the people they serve. Consciences are seared all in the name of protecting one’s responsibility to a greater cause. The end result for the film is a bit of a compromise but the climax pays off nonetheless. True, that climax creates an identity crisis of sorts by reveling in a gotcha type thriller rather than a more reality grounded one which made up most of the film. A less than ideal ending does not ruin an overall strong film.
An uneasy thriller that feels like the initial premise could be based on a true story, The Debt delicately blends fictional entertainment with loosely based non-fiction based characters and events of the most sensitive nature.