Judge Alice Nelson was once a spy for a covert agency trying to discover if Chicken McNuggets actually contain chicken.
If at first you don't succeed…
I've never been one who could lie very effectively, not that it stopped me from trying, but I am not very good at it. When I was about ten years old, I broke the knob on our washing machine, no one saw me do it but the guilt was more than I could handle. It took me all of fifteen minutes before I threw myself at my mother's feet, confessed and begged her for mercy. This is why the plot of The Debt intrigues me so; it's the story of three Mossad agents who live more than 30 years under the public presumption that a Nazi criminal they captured was killed as he tried to escape. It's not a secret I think I could successfully keep. You think I 'fessed up to mom lickity-split? I would've been groveling for forgiveness as soon as I hit Israeli soil if I were part of this plot. But this is an intriguing tale of the flawed human condition and how we try to rectify horrible mistakes with lies that we tell ourselves are justified, because they are told for the greater good.
Facts of the Case
Rachel (Neta Garty), Zvi (Itay Tiran) and Ehud (Yehezkel Lazarov) are three Mossad agents sent to the Ukraine to retrieve the Nazi war criminal Max Rainer (Edgar Selge). When Rainer escapes due to the agent's negligence, the three craft a story that Rainer tried to escape and was killed as a result. But 30 years later, their cover up comes back to haunt the three agents, who must then take action in order to prevent the truth from coming out.
The Debt isn't a typical Holocaust story; it is about the consequences of deception, not by the Nazi's, but by the 'good guys' for somewhat unselfish reasons. Even though they benefit personally from the lie with fame and wealth, I don't believe these Mossad agents cover up Rainer's escape only to protect their reputations, I think they did it for Israel and its citizens as well. However, living with this lie is far more difficult than I think even they imagined. Their lives never quite recover, because they are always in a position of being exposed as frauds, this causes internal conflicts that takes away any sense of shalom (peace).
The movie switches back and forth between 1967 and 1997, Gila Almagor plays the elder Rachel, and really the Rachel character is the central figure of the film. Although she experiences the defining moment of her life with two other agents, it is her actions in both the past and the present that are pivotal to the storyline. In Rachel's present life she is a sad woman in a loveless marriage who still feels the guilt of her deception. Almagor plays this role wonderfully; she is insecure but at the same time possesses a tremendous amount of inner strength. When she hears that Ranier has resurfaced, initially she panics, wanting nothing to do with his recapture. But she musters up the courage to go because she knows the importance of silencing him, not only for herself, but for her people. Nety Garty is just as powerful as Rachel the younger, just like Almagor she is vulnerable yet possesses an immense amount of maturity, considering Rainer is her first assignment right out of Mossad training school. These two actresses are the glue of the movie; we see through their eyes the plight of their character's situation in the past and the difficulty in bringing to justice a man who had spent 30 years hiding from capture.
Edgar Selge is a big star in his native Germany and the makers of The Debt wanted someone with a bit of gravitas to play the part of a reviled Nazi. Selge plays the part of a despicable, hateful, evil and crafty man, who's so arrogant that he thinks the Jews are a weak group of people who deserved the treatment they received. This perceived weakness somehow justifies the torturous experiments he performed on them. The interaction between Ranier and Rachel is intense; especially during the time that Ranier is a prisoner of the agents. He feels relatively safe, however, as the captive of Rachel and her partners because he knows they will never expose him to the kind of anguish he inflicted on the Jewish people during the War. Selge is fantastic and portrays Ranier as both the young Nazi and the geriatric version, living the high life in the Ukraine.
We see very little of Rachel's counterparts Zvi and Ehud as older men; what we know of them comes mainly from the 1967 incident. Itay Tiran as the younger Zvi is the leader of the three agents, a cold and distant fellow who lost his whole family in the Holocaust but has managed to remain so detached from the loss that he possesses this unnatural indifference to the presence of Ranier. In 1997, Zvi—still acting as the group's leader—is the one who brings the old gang together again to retrieve their nemesis. Ehud is a bit more unhinged, using his tall frame and physical strength to try and intimidate Ranier. But Ehud isn't the man he pretends to be and the older version shows us his true nature. There has been little contact between the three agents since 1967, it is the mission that brings them back together, otherwise you get the feeling that they would continue to avoid each other like the plague.
This is the first feature film by writer/director Assaf Bernstein and he does a beautiful job with his central character Rachel, skillfully using the strong supporting cast around her. The movie is at its best when it focuses on Rachel interacting with the Nazi, Ranier. The two have this adversarial chemistry that isn't sexual but has the intensity of a sexual relationship.
The Debt is presented in standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Not much of the movie takes place in Israel but we get a clear first hand view of the Ukraine. The audio is Dolby 5.1 Surround. The languages used by the actors are Hebrew and German, languages not usually thought of as beautiful but I love the sharper and harder edges. Extras include a making of documentary and the original trailer for the film.
The Debt is a wonderful movie that has a quiet intensity boiling just under the surface. It isn't a noisy or busy film; still, it manages to keep you on the edge of your seat for the entire time. So, if you're looking for a shoot 'em up, actiony, Holocaust film, you may be disappointed. I suggest however that you go into this experience realizing it is a film built around characters and their stories, making for a satisfying and emotional 97 minute ride.
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