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“The Debt” is the story of three Israeli Mossad agents – two who are children of Holocaust victims, a third whose ambition is driving him upward in the intelligence community – who track down and capture a Nazi war criminal in 1966 Berlin.
But the trio prove unable to smuggle “The Surgeon of Birkenau” across the Berlin Wall to face trial, resulting in Herr Doktor eventually taking a bullet in a failed attempt to escape his captors.
Thirty years later, with the Nazi dead, the agents are heroes … or are they? What really happened that fateful night in Berlin?
The movie features a star-studded cast, including Oscar winner Helen Mirren, who brings her talents to bear in an oustanding performance. The film, which alternates between the young trio of agents in 1966 (played by young, veteran actors) and the same agents in 1997 (played by a different cast of accomplished, veteran actors), is an intriguing mix of spy story, historical drama and suspenseful mystery.
Most of the film is engaging, if short of riveting, as audiences try to understand why one of the 1997 agents meets his startling death. A pair of truly disturbing scenes – not for their gruesomeness, but for their ingeniously unsettling dramatic twists – will stick with audiences long after the credits roll.
What will also likely stick with audiences is the way the ending fizzles. It’s not a happy story. It doesn’t get wrapped up nicely, and the resolution feels sadly incomplete, unworthy of the rest of the film. Instead of walking out of the theater feeling like I saw an Oscar candidate, I walked out feeling like I saw what could have been an Oscar candidate.
Nonetheless, I’d still recommend “The Debt,” especially since the film’s key premise isn’t about Jewish agents, Nazi criminals, war, justice or even revenge. The primary theme of “The Debt” is the inescapable importance of telling the truth.
Mark Twain popularized a saying of uncertain origin, “Lies and damnable lies.” Are there lies that are not only damnable, but also condemn those that tell them?
What about lies that snowball over 30 years, slowly gnawing away at the soul like worms through wood?
“The Debt” portrays the young Mossad agents as noble, international lawmen who endure vigorous training, humiliation (one of those “truly disturbing scenes” I mentioned earlier) and hardships to track down a Nazi butcher. And when confronted with the chance to take vengeance, they seek justice instead – a praiseworthy theme in the film that merits discussion after leaving the theater.
“We’re not animals,” the young Mossad leader insists, when the thought of brutalizing their Nazi captive rears its ugly head. “You remember what we are. You remember what we are not.”
But when the smuggling attempt goes horribly awry and the trio faces personal consequences, the consequences of failure and the blow to their ambition, the agents are thrust into a moral dilemma: If no one would ever find out you lied, would you still insist on telling the truth? No matter the consquences?
“The truth can be anything we want to take home,” one of the agents says, tempting the others into joining his lie. “It makes no difference. The truth stays in this room, between us.”
But does it?
Even if you don’t believe that a holy God would expose the lie (as one character suggests at one point), can you really turn your back on the truth for decades and not feel the consequences?
Thirty years later, one of trio has lied so long he insists, “Truth is a luxury.”
Another of the agents has endured the nagging knowledge of his sin so long, he’d rather die than live the lie a moment longer.
And the third? What will the third do? What will she do when the truth comes back to life and threatens to kill her?
You’ll have to watch “The Debt” to find out. You may not like the ending, but I’d recommend it anyway.
- “The Debt” contains a dozen strong obscenities and no profanities.
- The film contains a handful of realistic and therefore brutal scenes of violence. One scene of a man being hit by a truck is shocking in its detail, while a few other scenes are bloody. Violence is not a major element of the film – it’s about secret agents, but not James Bond – but when present, it’s startling and the primary reason for the film’s R rating.
- In terms of sexuality, the film contains one lewd joke about homosexuality, some kissing, a woman seen in a towel after her shower, a woman undressing (though no nudity is seen), a scene of implied, off-screen sex and a scene where a drunken couple undresses (in the dark) and has sex, while the scene’s primary character is trapped within earshot of the encounter. In addition, there are photographs of Holocaust victims, some of whom, even children, are nude. Finally, one of the women in the film visits a gynecologist on a couple of occasions, and while nothing explicit is seen, the examination and the topic of their conversation (about fertility and getting pregnant) is far from demure and, frankly, disturbing to watch.
- The film’s religious content is limited to one character saying of the agents’ decades-long lie, “I knew we would be punished,” while another answers, “God doesn’t plant car bombs.” Little other religious or occult content is present.