Full marks for ambition: pitting a crack squad from Israel’s controversial secret intelligence agency against a retired Nazi makes for a complicated game of good versus evil in any weather. But when your monster, the “Surgeon of Birkenau” (surgeon? Why not butcher? Or slasher?) is not Josef Mengele but one of the lesser villains in the national socialist pantheon of evil (it is all relative, of course) and the Mossad squad is more conflicted in their mission than usual, there is certainly scope for something genuinely challenging.
Much is made of Mossad’s questionable methods and, in a pointed piece of irony, it is the Israeli Stephan Gold who dehumanises the Nazi prisoner and not, as convention usually requires, the other way round. This is courageous film making, and I can see John Madden getting flack for it in certain conservative quarters. All the more reason to applaud.
So to the set up. Back in the seventies, when everything was grimy and brown, Mossad sent three of its youngsters to East Berlin to kidnap said surgeon, now working as a gynaecologist. Their scheme involves Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) feigning pregnancy to get close enough to Old Dr Gardener to validate that he is indeed their target. This presents some genuinely chilling scenarios: over a stilted conversation (during which he seems to suspects a ruse), a lone Jewish woman opens her legs with stirrups to a Nazi torturer and his instruments. It’s a memorable, creepy scene, and it is well executed by all concerned.
Satisfied that they have the right man, the surgeon is thrillingly apprehended and spirited away in preparation for a bold escape from Communist Berlin and rendition to Israel to stand trial for war crimes.
Of course, the Mossad escape plan has as many holes in it as the permanently leaking roof of their safe house. When it is eventually upset – as, of course, it must be – it is by something as unforeseeable as a postal worker stepping outside for a cigarette. The team improvises an escape under a hail of bullets from the East German guards, but are nonetheless now intractably stuck behind the iron curtain with an elderly German doctor for a prisoner.
In another courageous move, Dr Vogel turns out not to be much of a monster at all – his first concern is for his wife – but neither has he resiled a great deal from his Nazi views. With these he regales and taunts his captors and, sure enough, the shoots of some stockholm syndrome begin to emerge, particularly as regards young Rachel.
You’d be forgiven for drawing a parallel with Silence of the Lambs – John Madden wants you to, I think – but the exchanges between Rachel and Dr Vogel have nothing like the weapons-grade intensity of Hannibal Lecter’s interlocutions with Clarice Starling. They might have, had Dr Vogel been more of a Mengele.
In the Berlin sequence there are some fine performances from an ensemble cast. A special shout out must go to poor old Marton Csokas – once a fairy in The Lord of the Rings and before that geeky Dr. Leonard on a New Zealand soap opera – who excellently plays Mossad leader Stephan Gold for three quarters of the film, but still hasn’t got enough name recognition (or pronounceability, perhaps) to get a significant billing despite being a lead role in the film. Sam Worthington does, on the other hand, most recently having been seen as a tall blue mongrel Avatar, and he steals the show with an intense performance as David Peretz, the most idealistic and personally invested of the agents. Though she’d be a closer resemblance to a young Julianne Moore, Jessica Chastain does well as the young Helen Mirren, despite having to sexually tease both David and Stephan simultaneously in a pair of completely non-sensical relationships.
The convoluted set of moral imperatives are further compounded by a series of twists that turn the screenplay into a tourniquet. It is difficult to discuss much more of the plot without spoiling surprises as there are so many, but this is symptomatic of the film’s weakness: it tries to do too much everything: there are unnecessary angles, subplots, characters and locations. A bit more gusto with the editor’s pen on this peripheral stuff might have given room for a better exploration of the central relationship between Rachel and Dr Vogel, which to me is the heart of the film.
The East Berlin action over, we transpose to modern day Tel Aviv, where Madden needs Singer (now Helen Mirren, bearing the scars of the operation, physically and psychologically) to have a rationale for re-engaging in something she’s long left behind. The device he chooses doesn’t ring awfully true: a daughter conceived during the original operation to Stephan who has grown up and written a book about the raid which, despite it misreporting events entirely, Rachel is nonetheless sponsoring.
It isn’t clear why Rachel Singer would sanction a book about the botched raid, much less an inaccurate one by her own daughter, other than to paint her character into a corner suitable for the screenplay to develop. Screenplay accordingly does so develop: Mirren is characteristically watchable as Rachel, but the film still loses its way in the final reel (it does this even literally: Mirren is obliged to traipse up to a remote mental hospital in the Ukraine for her final showdown).
When it should be building to unbearable proportions the tension dissipates and the film ends on a rather ambiguous down-beat. This may be a product of a director wanting to stay true to his intellectual principles at the expense of the easy thrills of a thriller. If so, I think Madden has taken the wrong option: After thirty years, little enough is still at stake (only egos, really) and too many guns and fight sequences have taken place to carry the notion that this film isn’t, at its heart, a good old fashioned spy yarn. Fundamentally it is – and a compelling, tense and watchable one at that, though it will be interesting to see how it compares to the newly filmed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The Debt is out in cinemas 30th September 2011.
Director: John Madden
Stars: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson
Runtime: 113 min