Year Released: 2011
Directed by: John Madden
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Tom Wilkinson
(R, 104 min.)
"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." Henry David Thoreau
It’s billed as a political thriller, but don’t expect the adrenaline-fueled ride of the Jason Bourne franchise with its nonstop action, quick escapes, and plot twists. This is more like the real thing – squalid rooms, and an enveloping claustrophobia that compromises the mission and consciences of a young trio of Mossad agents.
The film juggles two time periods, 1966, the year of the mission to capture a notorious Nazi war criminal known as the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and 1997, when a book about that mission is published. Despite the top billing given to the older 1997 crew, most of the time and energy of the film surrounds the original mission and the neophyte agents.
The action and movement of that period is so concentrated, it could actually be a stage play with a limited number of sets, which themselves almost become characters in the piece.
First of all is the gritty East Berlin apartment where a young agent, Rachel (Jessica Chastain) joins David (Sam Worthington) and Stephen (Marton Csokas). Little time is wasted on social niceties. This is Rachel’s first mission, and Stephen, the agent in charge, tests her immediately. As he queries her about her cover story, he lunges at her with his knife and body in unexpected assaults, which Rachel foils quite effectively. Except for physical sparring and nervous tension released on the keys of an old piano, there isn’t much for the trio to do except stare at the flaking paint, stray cockroaches, and greasy walls or listen to the leaky roof drip into various strategically placed pots and pans as they wait for the inevitable planned capture.
An overriding sexual tension also pervades. David’s role is to be Rachel’s proxy husband – the two immediately lock hands when they walk down the street – and there seems to be a quiet attraction between them. But David, orphaned by the war, is lost inside himself and retreats from physical contact when it threatens to become intimate. The more aggressive Stephan has no such compunctions and strides through the door David has opened with his sensitivity.
Still another atmospheric set is the doctor’s office where the “Butcher of Birkenau” now plies his trade. How ironic that the medical man who once performed hideous medical experiments during the Holocaust now caters to expectant mothers who line his waiting room like so many ripe apples. One can describe the heroics of James Bond or even Harry Palmer, for that matter, and the lengths they go to for mother country, but anything these macho men do pales in comparison with Rachel’s scheduled visits to Doktor Berhardt (Jesper Christenen), as she slides into the metal stirrups on the examining table without hesitation. This scene certainly tops the mad dentist with his drill in Marathon Man as critic Christopher Orr hints.
The writers as well as Jesper Christensen himself, are especially shrewd in how they handle Doktor Bernhardt, both in his office and then later as a captive in the Berlin apartment. How easily he assumes the mantle of professionalism in his office, assuring and counseling Rachel through her supposed infertility questions. Then he becomes the concerned husband or the wheedling confidante during his captivity, both of these ordinary guises creating an even greater revulsion for the inner reality that is only hinted at.
Sadly, the 1997 sequence is not nearly so tight or crisp. First of all, both Tom Wilkinson as the older Stephan, and Ciaran Hinds as the older David, are physical mismatches for the younger versions of their characters. In fact, one might even experience some confusion, since Hinds’ older David clearly looks more like an older Stephan. Mirren can stand in for an older Chastain, but I thought the emphasis on her facial scar a bit of excess, given the nature of the original wound and the miracles of modern plastic surgery. It works best as a metaphor, I guess.
We also have a somewhat disjointed feel, as the film hiccups from the original 1966 mission to short modern sequences. While the earlier characters are portrayed with some depth, their older versions are mere sketches, and the interactions among the three reunited for the book event seem rushed. And since the political thriller context is really there to explore the concept of truth, the final turn to a somewhat melodramatic ending is somewhat disappointing.
Jessica Chastain, appearing in The Tree of Life, had similar problems with a script featuring a good core story that suffered from awkward framing sequences. However, even with its flawed execution, The Debt, like the excellent slow burning French thriller Cache, aptly demonstrates the lasting damage done to our souls through lies and cruelties, how they infect us through time and sometimes even through next generations.
The claustrophobic sameness of the squalid East Berlin apartment is enhanced by the greenish goulash David, Stephan, and Rachel eat every day. It is no more impressive than their surroundings, I would surmise by the scatological name David gives it.
I am going to assume that spinach is a key ingredient, and I have found an authentic German soup that includes that leafy green, but our improved version also has lentils, carrots, celery, tomatoes, and ham.
German Ham – Lentil Soup
1 lb. (2 c.) Lentils
1 lg. onion minced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 lg. carrots, minced
2 lg. stalks celery with leaves chopped
1 can (1 lb.) tomatoes chopped
7 c. water
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 pkg. (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach partially defrosted
2 c. diced ham
Soak lentils in cold water to cover overnight. Drain. Put with other ingredients, except spinach and ham, in slowly cooking pot. Cook on low covered 8 to 10 hours. Add spinach and ham during last hour cooking. Serves 8 to 10. You can also cook in a crock pot.
Recipe Source: Source: Cooks.com