Walt Disney Studios has told the producers of its Miramax movies “The Debt” that it won’t be releasing the film because of the pending sale of its specialty division to the newly created Filmyard Holdings, as part of a $660 million acquisition of Miramax Films scheduled to be completed by year’s end. IMDB (International Movie Data Base) says the film was set to open on September 2, 2010 in Argentina. It was supposedly set to open wide on December 29th, 2010. Who knows when U.S. audiences will see it now? If it makes it to a Cineplex near you, don’t miss it, if for no other reason than to give Helen Mirren the opportunity to make up for the execrable “Red” film she lent her name and considerable talent to recently. This film is good, and Mirren as an action heroine deserves a great deal of credit for making this film work, as does the actress who plays her as a young girl, Jessica Chastain.
Director John Madden’s (“Shakespeare in Love”) “The Debt” is a tense thriller, with a great tension-producing score by Thomas Newman. The movie was shot in Budapest, Hungary and in Tel Aviv, Israel. It deals with 3 young Mossad Israeli agents who are sent into Communist East Berlin in 1965, (when it was still a divided city), to capture and bring to justice a Nazi war criminal living in hiding there.
The war criminal, Dieter Vogel, is practicing as an OB/GYN. Young Rachel Singer (young Rachel is played by Jessica Chastain; mature Rachel by Helen Mirren) joins forces with David Gold (young David is Sam Worthington of “Avatar;” old David is Ciaran Hinds) and Stefan Paris (young Stefan is Marton Csokas; old Stefan is Tom Wilkinson of “In the Bedroom”) to first make sure that this is, indeed, the infamous Surgeon of Birkenau, Dieter Vogel, and then to capture him alive and take him back to Israel for trial. There is a plan in place for transporting him by train, but as that plan goes south, the plot line is, “It’s a f****** mess. And now we’re on our own.”
Young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) must pose as Frau Roget, pretending she needs help to conceive. That leads to scenes with Jesper Christensen, (playing the Nazi doctor) that are nerve-wracking as she must answer questions (feet in stirrups) which he asks her while she is on his examination table, and she must answer them accurately so as to appear to be who she says she is. The screenplay by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan is excellent. This movie is based on an earlier film entitled “Ha-Hov” by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum, which has been given a makeover by Director John Madden.
The film is a tour de force performance opportunity for female star Helen Mirren (Oscar winner for “The Queen”) who portrays the adult Rachel Singer. When viewed immediately after the Sean Penn/Naomi Watts vehicle “Fair Game,” (which is about the Bush administration lies that led us to war in Iraq), it becomes the second strong film in just about that many days of the 46th Annual Chicago Film Festival to remind us that, “The truth can be anything we want it to be. The important thing is justice is seen to be done.” (from Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas). Or is it? Is that Machiavellian worldview a good guiding principle? Shouldn’t truth be told simply because it’s the right thing to do?
In the film, it doesn’t turn out to be a good guiding life principle for young David (Sam Worthington), who cannot live with the lie the 3 agents create and live for 30 years, at the suggestion of Stefan (Tom Wilkinson). When the original mission goes horribly awry and the doctor escapes after capture, Stefan suggests that the 3 take a vow of silence and agree that the official story will be that Rachel heroically shot the evil doctor in the back as he broke free and attempted to flee. After all, the Nazi war criminal isn’t going to be calling attention to himself, embarrassment for the nation of Israel will be avoided, and the 3 will return from the mission heroes, rather than failures. They agree, at Stefan’s urging, to go along with the plan. For 30 years, Rachel must tell the story of her heroic assassination of the Surgeon of Birkenau, even though she knows it is a lie. All 3 are complicit in the lie, but David seems most affected.
Another difficulty for David is that he is in love with Rachel and she with him, but he initially rejected her. On the rebound, she has taken up with Stefan, by whom she is now unexpectedly pregnant. David was too wounded by the loss of his entire family in the camps to open up to Rachel when she first flirted with him; the much-more manipulative Stefan sees his opportunity and takes up with the vulnerable young girl.
Like the recent film “Never Let Me Go,” the audience can see that Rachel and David—THAT couple— belong together, but, by then, Rachel is pregnant with Stefan’s child, her daughter Sarah, who will grow up to write a book about her parents’ exploits, further complicating matters. Rachel has consigned herself to a loveless marriage and living a lie for 30 years.
The theme of paths not taken, of opportunities missed, resonates just as much as the greater message about telling the truth in life. An adult Rachel tells David, “We can’t go back.” Rachel also seems at times to side with Stefan’s viewpoint that, “Truth is a luxury. Some people have put other things first, their country their children.”
And, of course, there is plenty of Nazi propaganda spouted by the elderly doctor who blinded children, conducted inhumane experiments such as injecting human subjects with petrol and believes that all Jews are weak. (“Not one out of thousands had the courage to resist. It only took 4 officers to lead thousands to the gas chamber,” he tells the young Mossad agents after his capture.)
The film’s climax comes when an elderly nursing home resident in the Ukraine begins making claims that he is the still-living Surgeon of Birkenau. David has died. Stefan, who is now divorced from Rachel and wheelchair-bound, tells Rachel that she must travel to the Ukraine, confirm that the patient (who is about to grant an interview to the local press) is, indeed, their man and take care of the problem. Says Stefan, “You have to do it because, for 30 years, you’ve been taking the credit for it.”
Helen Mirren’s Rachel agrees with Stefan, especially in regards to their daughter Sarah’s book, “If the truth were to come out now, it would destroy her.” But will undertaking such a dangerous mission, 30 years after her last stint as a Mossad agent, destroy Rachel? Will Rachel ever tell the truth simply because it’s the right thing to do?
Hopefully, you’ll have the opportunity to find the answer to those questions by viewing this action-packed psychological thriller yourself in a theater near you, if the decline of Miramax doesn’t spell doom for “The Debt.”