Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Debt (2011)

The Debt is a 2011 drama-thriller film directed by John Madden based on a screenplay written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan. The film is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name by Assaf Bernstein. It stars Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas and Jesper Christensen.

Originally scheduled for a December 2010 release, the film was released in the U.S. on August 31, 2011.

The Plot

In 1965, Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) arrives in East Berlin to meet with fellow agents David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas). Their mission is to capture Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) – infamously known as "The Surgeon of Birkenau" for his horrific pseudo-medical experiments on Jews during World War II – and bring him to Israel to face justice.

Rachel and David present themselves as an ethnic German married couple from Argentina and Rachel plants herself as a patient at Vogel's obstetrics and gynaecology clinic. Both Stefan and David develop an attraction to Rachel, and Stefan reveals to her that David lost his entire family in the Holocaust. At her third appointment, Rachel injects Vogel with a sedative during an examination and induces the nurse (Vogel's wife) to believe Vogel suffered a heart attack. Stefan and David arrive dressed as ambulance crew and make off with the unconscious Vogel in an ambulance, barely ahead of the real ambulance team. Under cover of night, the trio attempt their exfiltration at Wollankstraße Station, on a rail line along the sector boundary between East and West Berlin, and next to a mail depot. However, as they prepare to load Vogel onto the train, Vogel suddenly awakens and sounds the horn of the stolen mail truck where he was being held, alerting East German guards to their presence. In the ensuing shootout, David sacrifices his chance to escape in order to collect a compromised Rachel, leaving the agents with no choice but to bring Vogel to their apartment and plan a new extraction.

The agents take turns monitoring Vogel, who attempts to psychologically humiliate and intimidate them. During one of David's shifts, he becomes violent after Vogel discusses the reasons why he believes that Jews had many weaknesses, making them an easy target. David breaks a plate over Vogel's head and repeatedly beats him only to be stopped by Stefan. In the next scene, while Rachel is in charge of the monitoring, Vogel manages to cut through his binds using a shard of the broken plate and ambushes Rachel with a razor, leaving her with a permanent scar on her face. He escapes into the night as the agents are left to assess their failure. Panicked and hoping to save face for both himself and for Israel, Stefan convinces Rachel and David to go along with the fiction that Vogel was killed. They agree to lie and use the cover story that Rachel shot and killed Vogel as he tried to flee.

In the following years, the agents become venerated as national heroes for their roles in the mission. During a party at the home of Rachel and Stefan (now married), Rachel confesses to David her distaste with her current life; Stefan puts his career and social status ahead of her while also punishing her for not loving him and having feelings for David. David admits his intention to leave Mossad and the country, imploring Rachel to come with him. Rachel cannot bring herself to abandon her daughter and she and David part ways.

In 1997, Rachel (Helen Mirren) is honored by her daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) during a release party for Sarah's book based on the account Rachel, Stefan and David gave of the events in 1965. Concurrently, David (Ciarán Hinds) is escorted from his apartment by an Israeli government agent for a debriefing. David recognizes Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) waiting in another vehicle and commits suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming truck.

At a dinner after their daughter's book release party, Stefan takes Rachel aside to set a meeting to discuss new information Stefan has obtained. Later, at David's apartment, Stefan provides evidence that Vogel now resides at an asylum in Ukraine, and is soon scheduled to be interviewed by a respected journalist. David had been investigating at Stefan’s request and, according to Stefan, killed himself out of fear that the lie would be exposed. Rachel refutes Stefan's explanation, recalling an encounter with David a day before his suicide, in which he revealed his shame about the lie and disclosed that he had spent years unsuccessfully searching the world for Vogel. He was further disheartened by Rachel’s admission that she would continue propagating the lie to protect those closest to her, particularly her daughter.

Nevertheless, Rachel finally feels compelled to travel to Kiev, where she investigates the journalist's lead and identifies the asylum. She reaches the room just minutes before the journalist and discovers the man claiming to be Vogel is an impostor, a senile old man who apparently fancies the notoriety. Describing the encounter to Stefan over the phone, Rachel declares she will not continue to lie about the 1965 mission. She leaves a note for the journalist and prepares to leave, but suddenly spots Vogel among the patients and follows him to an isolated area of the hospital. After a short confrontation in which Vogel stabs her with scissors, Rachel kills Vogel by plunging a poisoned syringe into his back. Meanwhile, Rachel's note is discovered and read by the journalist. It describes the truth of the mission, ready to be relayed to the world.


The Debt has received generally positive response among critics and viewers. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 76% of the 158 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average critical score of 6.5/10. The site's consensus states, "Its time-shifting narrative creates distracting casting problems, but ultimately, The Debt is a smart, well-acted entry in a genre that could use more like it." Metacritic, a review aggregator which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 65 based on 37 reviews. Victoria Alexander of FilmsInReview.com said of the film,"The twists are shocking and mesmerizing. A high wire, intelligent espionage thriller. It is one of the best movies of 2011." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times gave the film 2½ stars out of four. Ebert said, "Maybe the problem is a structure that cuts around in time. Three characters, six actors, and although the woman is always presumably Rachel, I was sometimes asking myself which of the two men I was seeing when younger. In a thriller, you must be sure. I suspect this movie would have been more effective if it had remained entirely in the past, especially given all we know."

The Cast

Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer
 Tom Wilkinson as Stephan Gold
 Ciarán Hinds as David Peretz
 Romi Aboulafia as Sarah Gold
 Tomer Ben David as Sarah's Husband
 Ohev Ben David as Sarah's Son
 Jonathan Uziel as Mossad Agent
 Eli Zohar as Stephan's Driver
 Irén Bordán as Seminar Moderator
 Jessica Chastain as Young Rachel
 Marton Csokas as Young Stephan
 Sam Worthington as Young David
 Jesper Christensen as Doktor Bernhardt / Dieter Vogel
 Brigitte Kren as Frau Bernhardt

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