Directed by John Madden, The Debt (2010) is not only a highly entertaining, gripping thriller but also boasts a very impressive cast including Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, actress of the moment Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington.
In 1965, three MOSAD agents, Stephen, David and Rachel, are given the mission of capturing Nazi war criminal and ‘The Surgeon of Birkenau’ Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), who is now working as a gynaecologist in East Berlin. Once the three capture Vogel, they are tasked with bringing him to Israel to stand trial for his involvement in the Holocaust. The mission was thought to have been accomplished and the three returned home as heroes. Flash forward 35 years, and the older agents are reunited via a publication of a book detailing the events. Once reunited, it emerges that the mission may not have been quite the success the public were lead to believe.
Based on a series of historical figures – most notably Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann – The Debt tells a well-constructed and thrilling tale about living with guilt. The performances from the younger cast are superb, all of whom create an atmosphere positively palatable with stress and drama. Chastain’s performance stands out in particular through a series of impressive scenes carrying much of the strength of the film.
The story is seen through a series of flashbacks which interweave with the present day story. Yet the structure – whilst strong – demonstrates the weakness of the present day plot and the underdevelopment of Hinds, Wilkinson and Mirren’s characters. It is the pervading sense of mystery and intrigue in the 1965 story that carriers much of what is enjoyable about Madden’s thriller.
Unlike the much-underrated 2007 film Eichmann – which explores some similar themes – the crimes of Vogel are left to subtext, with the audience only briefly informed of the atrocities of his crimes. The focus instead lays on the aftermath and reaction of those who survived and what it meant to hold those who orchestrated the Holocaust accountable.
Whilst there is much to be enjoyed about Madden’s The Debt, there are several key flaws that prevent it from being anything more than a competent Nazi-hunt – a perfect Friday night-in movie.