Review: The Debt (2011)

debt_movie posterRarely can I say a film manages to be satisfying and UNsatiafying at the same time…..but The Debt succeeds at this paradox. It also serves up an excellent example of 20th century Jewish literature meanwhile.

The story revolves around a set of 3 Mossad agents in two different times, 1966 and 1997. The 1997 frame tale takes all its motivation from the events in 1966, so the movie spends quite a while in the flashback. Both stories are superbly acted. The trailer revealed the 3 agents had traveled to Berlin to capture a notorious Nazi doctor, the “Butcher of Bierkenau.” Things didn’t go as planned; the trio lied to cover up the truth.

(SPOILER: the 2 men and 1 woman find the Nazi doctor and kidnap him, but they miss their pickup with the other agents through their own misfortune. The men could have made the drop if they’d abandoned the woman, but the more tender-hearted of the two men-David- had a soft spot for Rachel and refused to abandon her. the Nazi eventually escaped, but the 3 agreed to create a tale in which the injured Rachel manages to shoot the guy as he tried to escape. Afterwards, having returned to Israel and a hero’s welcome, Rachel hooks up with Stephan because David can’t live with his conscience well enough to stay in her life.)

The plot hangs on the psychological and relational effects of a lie maintained for 30 years. Having absorbed all the glory of success for most of a lifetime, letting the truth come out would devastate their reputations. Even Rachel’s daughter is at stake. An aspiring author, she just published a book about the incident.

This movie has incredible acting. Some of the best I’ve seen on screen. So believe me when I say I watched the entire film with intense interest.

(again, SPOILERS AHEAD). In the 1997 timeline, which climaxes the plot, Rachel finds the ancient Nazi stowed in a Ukrainian nursing home. Someone is threatening to publishe the truth, so she’s sent to find him and stop it. She can kill the old man right there or walk away and let her daughter be dragged down along with the whole mess. It’s a good ethical dilemma. After all, the IDEA of justice has carries them all for 30 years, not the reality. As far as the public is concerned, the man got his due. But the film begins to make a case for honesty. Ok.

This is where the ending left me with sawdust instead of resolution. I don’t want to spoil the ending …. Let me just say that we get neither justice nor forgiveness.

Like so much Jewish writing in the post-Holocaust world, the Mossad agents cannot see anything except Justice. Every character in the film is controlled by their personal sense of righteousness. Their consciences haunt them, but resolution escapes them. Either they kill the man, or they live under the crushing weight of moral failure. Somehow Justice rests on their shoulders alone.

It is this moral one-sightedness that makes the film a tragedy in the final analysis. I wasn’t hoping for forgiveness or a happy ending. But a world where crime merits only utter destruction (the alternative being moral compromise) makes for a dark film. I didn’t want the agents to forgive the Nazi. Let him burn. But the idea tha they *alone* had the power to meet out justice–and failed, so now must do a lifetime of penance …which culminates in a lie ….and then an attempt at honesty which will meanwhile destroy the innocent daughter…..? This is a brutal, cold world of Justice that I don’t want to live in.

Props to the actors for outstanding performances.
Props also to the screenwriter who created incredible moments of tension and psychological terror. The film is worth your time just for the craft.

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