arts & entertainment
to take matters
into her own
Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington
and Jessica Chastain in The Debt
Special to the Jewish News
taut, well-crafted thriller with an
Israeli accent, The Debt is easily
and best appreciated as edge-of-
At the same time, the English-language
remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha Hov
echoes a question raised far more egre-
giously by Inglourious Basterds but other-
wise rarely discussed since Marathon Man
(1976), The Boys From Brazil (1978) and
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): When is it
acceptable and thought-provoking to cast
Nazis as movie villains, and when is it an
exploitative affront to history?
On that score, The Debt earns far bet-
ter marks, surprisingly, than Ha Hov. It's
both a matter of integrity and structure,
though: The Hollywood film downplays
a theme that the Israeli movie put front
and center, abandoning it in the pursuit of
thrills, chills and spills.
Ha Hov questioned Israel's need for
military heroes, primarily in the Jewish
state's insecure early years but even up to
the present. The Debt is more interested
in the personal price of keeping a secret.
Actually, the new film is concerned above
all with intelligently keeping the audience
guessing what will happen next.
The Debt opens Wednesday, Aug. 31.
The remake retains the central plot of
the original but withholds a key revelation
until much later. Since Ha Hov was unseen
in this country (outside of at a handful of
Jewish film festivals) few moviegoers will
know the secret at the core of the story. I
certainly won't spoil it for you.
Both movies begin in the early 1960s
with the triumphant return of a trio of
young Mossad agents from a secret over-
seas mission. Their accomplishment was
killing "the Surgeon of Birkenau," an infa-
mous Nazi (obviously inspired by Josef
Mengele) living comfortably in East Berlin
under an assumed name.
Leap forward 30 years, and the three
legendary figures (played by Helen Mirren,
Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds) are
compelled to revisit the pivotal event that
shaped their lives and careers. The bulk
of The Debt, consequently, consists of an
extended flashback in which we see the
German operation in its entirety.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare
in Love) stages and paces the set pieces
and action sequences with crackling,
convincing verve. Alas, the Mossad agents
(played in their 20-something versions by
gorgeous thespians Jessica Chastain, Sam
Worthington and Marton Csokas) strain
credibility with their callowness and
immaturity. They are well trained, up to a
point, but lack discipline.
While the Holocaust provides the agents
with intense personal motivation to repay
the Nazi doctor, it also serves as an emo-
tional Achilles heel that their cunning
It's for the viewer to decide if the doctor's
nasty taunt that Jews went to the gas cham-
bers like docile sheep instead of fighting
back against their outnumbered (but well-
armed) captors accurately reflects Nazi atti-
tudes, is intended to provoke the agents into
a mistake or is simply a ploy by the screen-
writers to raise the audience's hackles.
The writers' greater miscalculation,
though, is ratcheting the tension in the
Mossad operatives' Berlin apartment into
a contorted triangle that nudges the movie
out of the satisfying terrain of nail-biting
political thriller and into trivial romantic
That's a minor quibble, in the big
picture. The Debt is a splendidly exe-
cuted suspense yarn that, unlike most
Hollywood action flicks that assume the
theater is packed with dolts, makes a
concerted effort to prod and challenge the
audience to deduce its central mysteries.
They are good ones, too: What is the
debt, who owes it and to whom?
Be advised, though, if you go to The
Debt expecting to see Jewish warriors tak-
ing revenge and eradicating evil, catharsis
is not on the bill. I I
The Debt opens Wednesday, Aug. 31,
in area theaters.
Director John Madden on The Debt
n Academy Award nominee for
Shakespeare in Love, winner of
the Oscar for Best Picture of
1998, the British director John Madden
has done acclaimed work in theater, radio,
television and film. Here, he speaks about
The Debt, which he adapted from the 2007
Israeli film Ha Hov.
JM In your view, what's the central
theme of The Debt?
JM: I feel the film— though I fear that
if you described it this way it would send
people running in the other direction —
is about moral responsibility and moral
accountability. How we deal with war crimi-
nals, and what is an appropriate response
politically and morally to crimes of that
grotesque magnitude. And to some extent
the film poses, in the positions of the three
ideologically driven young agents who are
pursuing this man that they think is guilty
of these crimes, the dialectic between a sort
of urge for revenge and an urge for justice.
IN: The risk when you make a film
with Nazi villains is using the Third
Reich and the Holocaust as entertain-
JM: Screenwriter Peter Straughan and I
felt very, very strongly that the last thing in
the world we were interested in doing was
using the Holocaust and the pursuit of this
Mengele-type character as a sort of hook
to hang a revenge thriller on.
My responsibility was to pay as much
attention to character, and the truth of
people's behavior, rather than to engineer
the situation where the characters col-
laborated with the script's requirement for
entertainment. It would grieve me more
than anything if we were tagged with the
accusation that we were hitching a ride on
an appalling circumstance simply to enter-
tain the audience. It wasn't our intention,
and I hope it's not our effect.
IN: Why did you choose to include
the sequence where one of the Mossad
agents — and the audience — looks at
pictures of Holocaust victims? You don't
linger on them, but you do show them.
JM: It's a very tricky one. Again, I
didn't gratuitously do that to push
something down the audience's
throat. A girl trained as all Mossad
agents are finds herself operating in
the field for the first time and cannot
resist reacquainting herself with what Director John Madden and Helen Mirren, who
this man apparently was and did.
plays retired secret agent Rachel Singer, on
Those images are so extraordinarily the set of The Debt
charged, and I certainly did not, as
you quite rightly guessed, wish to play that only way mankind can move forward and
out over any length of time. But I felt it was
renew itself is through embracing forgive-
important to have it in the film, to have some ness. Not that I'm suggesting for a second
evocation of that world. And particularly
that forgiveness is appropriate necessar-
to watch the effect it was having on the
ily in the circumstance that we're talking
about here, but the notion of truth in this
film, being a crucial thing to strive for, is a
IN: You are steeped in Shakespeare,
very Shakespearean idea.
and one of the concerns of The Debt is
It's struggling into the light. The movie
its recurring theme that revenge and
ends and begins with a sort of blinding
retribution are not just foolish or insuf- light of exposure, and the characters as we
ficient but self-destructive.
find them at the beginning are poised at a
JM: I think it absolutely is. The counter-
moment that is going to affect their lives.
balance of revenge and retribution is for-
They walk into the light and embrace it, or
giveness, and the humanist standpoint and they walk out into that light and deny it. Li
the Shakespearean standpoint is that the
- Michael Fox
August 25 2011