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The Debt

August 31, 2011
The Debt

Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn,
Dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird.
Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst,
Blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.

“He who fights with monsters”, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, “should be careful that he does not become a monster himself.” Director John Madden is tasteful enough not to beat the audience of The Debt over the head with aphorisms, but the message comes through: we must be careful not only in what we do, but in what stories we tell ourselves, especially when we fall back on justifying them in the name of “the greater good”.

In this case, that good is bringing justice to former Nazi leaders in the fading wake of the Holocaust. And, in particular, to one Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), dubbed “the Surgeon of Birkenau”, who had committed atrocities basically cribbed from those of Mengele at Auschwitz. The Mossad learned that he was hiding out in communist-controlled East Berlin, and in 1965 sent a team — Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), David Peretz (Sam Worthington), and Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) — to kidnap and return him to Israel to stand trial for his crimes.

Kidnap him they do, but the extraction doesn’t go quite according to plan. They find themselves stuck in East Berlin, trapped in a small apartment with Vogel, waiting for another chance to escape.

Thirty years later, the story of their ordeal is the stuff of historical novels and national fame, but did things really go according to history? Only four people know for sure what happened, and it weighs on Stephan, David, and Rachel (now played by Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, and Helen Mirren, respectively) differently.

The main cast all put in solid performances, but Christensen and Chastain absolutely stand out. Christensen manages to make Vogel a monster indeed, but also chillingly human and familiar. Chastain continues her annus mirabilis with a third exceptional role, stretching her range even further. And Madden again shows his craftsman’s eye behind the lens. One hopes he garners some of the awards himself this time, instead of letting them all go to his cast, for a deft handling of a topic that turns out to be subtler than it first appears.

This sort of Nazi-hunting actually used to be somewhat controversial, especially given the way Israel operated outside their national borders. But now it’s pretty widely accepted as a net good, even if some rules were bent in the process. Even the recent assassination of Osama bin Laden is generally seen as a necessary if less-than-ideal method of accomplishing a laudable goal. And so there are sure to be accusations that The Debt — and its Israeli forebear, Ha-Hov — is manufacturing controversy.

But a little scraping beneath the surface and we find a much wider story. The goal of capturing Vogel is never painted as a bad one, nor are the planned methods, and so the historical fact of Nazi-hunting isn’t the point at all. The question arises when things go awry, what is acceptable to accomplish this mission? And what stories is it acceptable to tell in service of that mission, even if they diverge from the truth? Is it acceptable, say, to tell a story about Nigerian yellowcake uranium in order to justify ousting an oppressive dictator? Would it have been acceptable if we had never found out it was a lie? Was it acceptable for Germans to repeat their government’s stories about the Jews to each other in order to get on with their lives under the Third Reich?

Every story is an impression — an approximation of the actual truth. Sometimes the divergences between the facts and the stories are shocking, but sometimes these divergences are necessary, or at least serve a greater purpose. But at the same time, the stories we tell ourselves define who we are. It is absolutely essential to be mindful of what they are, and thus who and what we are telling ourselves to become.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail. There are a few conversations, but they’re pretty minor and with very minor characters.

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