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Movie Review - The Debt with Helen Mirren (2010)

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A trio of Israeli intelligence officers has been esteemed for thirty years for their part in bringing down Dieter Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi war criminal responsible for the mutilation and death of thousands of prisoners.  In 1997, the daughter of Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) has published a book detailing the activities of her mother, her father Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson), and their colleague David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds), as members of the Mossad Agency in 1965.


Helen Mirren

                                                             Helen Mirren - Wikimedia

The film alternates between 1965 and 1997 with such frequency that it is difficult at times to keep up with the story line.  In 1965, the young trio - Rachel, Stephan, and David - were portrayed by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington.

At that time, the three agents were sent to East Berlin undercover to carry out the project and bring the Nazi criminal to Israel where he would go on trial.  From their base in an apartment in that city, Rachel and David posed as a married couple from Argentina who were hoping to conceive a child.  Rachel made an appointment with a gynecologist, Dr. Bernhardt, who was actually their prey, Dieter Vogel, the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau.    

Stephan and David were both attracted to Rachel and became rivals for her affection.  David, the most morally responsible of the group, hesitated to initiate a romance between the two, although Rachel preferred him over Stephan.  Both of David’s parents had died in the Holocaust, and his primary goal was to avenge their death.  Stephan therefore pursued his own cause, and Rachel became pregnant as a result.

Rachel Meets Their Quarry

On her third visit to Dr. Bernhardt’s office, Rachel surprised “the Surgeon” by injecting him with a poison which knocked him out.  Rachel asked the nurse to call an ambulance.  Stephan and David posed as doctors and arrived at the clinic in an ambulance after receiving her signal.  They acted quickly to remove the doctor over the objections of the nurse, who was actually the wife of the doctor, who wanted to accompany them to the hospital.

The initial plan was to hand off the prisoner to an agent coming through on a train.  Care had to be taken in the darkened train station, as sentries were all about.  Their plan relied on the sentries’ view being blocked on one side of the train while the hand-off was being carried out on the other side, before the train sped off again.  The plan was foiled, and the three were forced to take the unconscious Vogel back to their apartment.  David had an opportunity to escape, but his loyalty to Rachel caused him to remain with his colleagues.


Tom Wilkinson

                                                        Tom Wilkinson - Wikimedia

A Need for Plan B

Their nerves on edge, the trio argued with each other to the glee of Vogel who had gained consciousness.  They took shifts in feeding their prisoner, who preferred the kindness of Rachel, and informed her that he knew of her pregnancy, and asked which one was the father.  He begged Rachel to tell him if his wife was all right.  The trio agreed not to speak to Vogel, but she signaled him that his wife was fine.  Stephan was incensed when he saw the nod. 

On one of Rachel’s shifts, Vogel used a shard of a plate that David had thrown to cut the ropes that were binding his hands.  A fight ensued between the two.  Although Rachel had been instructed in martial arts defense techniques, Vogel was able to inflict a serious wound on her face and to escape down the long staircase.  Rachel tried shooting him from her vantage point, but missed.

The Truth is Suppressed

Having to save face, the trio lied to the Israeli government, stating that Rachel had killed Vogel when he tried to escape.  The three agreed with each other never to reveal the true situation that had occurred.  For thirty years, the Israelis had honored the agents as heroes for their remarkable work in East Berlin.

Stephan and Rachel married when they returned to Israel.  It was not a happy marriage, except for the birth of their daughter, Sarah.  A few years later, David was present at a party at Stephan and Rachel’s home, and told Rachel that he was leaving the agency and Israel and begged her to come with him.  He had always been uncomfortable with their cover-up story and could not take it anymore.  Rachel could not leave her daughter Sarah, and stayed with Stephan for a while before they eventually divorced.

Flash forward again to 1997 when Rachel and Stephan are retired.  Stephan is confined to a wheelchair with a debilitating disease.  A party is in progress for Sarah upon the release of her book detailing the events in East Berlin in 1965.  David showed up at the party, looking disheveled and worn.  After he left, he walked into the path of a truck, an obvious suicide.


Jessica Chastain

                                                           Jessica Chastain - Wikimedia

Still Alive or a Hoax

Rachel had become more uncomfortable with the knowledge of the secret which they all held for so long.  David had spent his life seeking to find the perpetrator, without success.  At Stephan’s request, David had been investigating a story that a man in an institution in Kiev in the Ukraine claimed to be The Surgeon of Birkenau and was soon be interviewed by a journalist about his escapades.  Stephan claimed that David killed himself out of fear that their lie would be exposed.  Rachel denied Stephan’s claim.  She had spoken to David the day before his suicide when she promised him that she would never reveal the lie out of respect for her daughter’s success with the book that related their heroic feat.

Rachel felt obliged to go to Kiev to complete the task they were assigned thirty years ago.  The journalist was already in the waiting room, and Rachel too is asked to wait.  She overheard that Vogel was in Room 414 and managed slyly to reach the room.

This review will not reveal the ending.  The entire film was loaded with suspense, providing great entertainment and excitement for the viewer.  I would venture to say that “The Debt” is one of the best suspense films released in the past decade.  The cast is to be commended for their contribution to this accolade.   


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Nov 17, 2015 8:17am
nice post i really enjoyed the writers point of view
Nov 17, 2015 9:41am
Thanks for stopping by. Good luck with your writing!
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