The Debt
There are a couple of things that are confusing about this film. One is that it keeps jumping back and forth between past and present, sometimes almost seamlessly. The other is they decided to cast different actors to be the 30-ish versions of the 60-ish characters. And they didn’t try that hard to make the “younger versions” look like their older counterparts, they just depended on the viewer to keep it all straight and figure that people change so much in 30 years as to become unrecognizable.
Well, those of us who have participated in high school reunions know that that is not quite true. What we fear, of course, is becoming caricatures of ourselves, but that does not necessarily mean we would be unidentifiable as the same person. I suppose that this was easier in the filming, though, than to try to make 60-something people look 30-something, with backlighting or dim lighting or heavy make-up or whatever. It’s just a little disconcerting to watch, because there’s also no attempt to fill in the transition period of anything that happened in the intervening intervals. We’re in 1967 or we’re in 1997. No in-between.
The plot involves a group of three young Mossad agents, in the mid-1960’s, given the assignment to track down a former Nazi war criminal, a brutal physician who callously performed human experiments, even on children, now living quietly as a practicing ob-gyn in East Berlin. The plan was to kidnap him and bring him back to Israel to be publicly tried for his heinous crimes, but, predictably, not everything went as planned. Making “in the field” adjustments is always the tricky part of any clandestine operation.
All three agents survived the experience, but not exactly emotionally intact. They carried with them some dark secrets that affected all of them differently. And now, in their “twilight” years, they’re expected to do something to rectify an old mistake?
The part of Rachel is played by Jessica Chastain (the lone American) as the younger version, and Helen Mirren as the older version. They look nothing alike, but other than that, both do a superlative job with their roles. It’s interesting to hear Mirren dialogue in German, and speak the King’s English with an Israeli accent. A wheelchair-bound Tom Wilkinson (another Brit) plays the older Stephan, with Martin Csokas (a New Zealander) as the younger version. Sam Worthington (an Englishman educated in Australia ) plays the younger David, and Ciarian Hinds (an Irishman) the older David. The Nazi “monster,” Jesper Christensen, is Danish, so Director John Madden had his hands full making all the language transitions sound authentic. But he did. He also coaxed some compelling performances out of this disparate casting, and is to be commended for pulling it together in an almost-cohesive whole.
On a personal note, my father fought in World War II, and his unit happened to stumble upon the Camp at Buchenwald while there will still “inmates” there, after the German soldiers had fled. It was a sight he would never forget. So this film is, in part, lest we forget those unspeakable atrocities.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas