As it was the first movie in weeks even worth considering going to see, I saw The Debt this weekend. I was not disappointed. While not the big explosion, all around fun movie you usually expect around this time of year, The Debt is a moving tragedy that forces the viewer to ask some very weighty questions about heroism, cowardice, truth, evil and pacifism.
I’m going to split this blog into two parts, the first being a more general praise of its style that won’t ruin anything and then a more spoiler filled discussion of its themes. Usually I don’t care about spoilers as I know plot is the most meaningless and least important part of any good story, but there is a certain emotional gut kick that comes with seeing this movie without knowing what will happen (something so lacking in modern movies and books) that I do not want to ruin for you.
First and foremost what immediately struck me was that the movie was being directed by someone who knew what a camera was for. There was none of the random, slipshod, quick and numerous cuts that define so many hack directors. This is one of the few movies in the last decade where cinematography and editing skill are actually apparent without overpowering the characters and theme.
The story itself, if you don’t know already takes place during two different time periods. The early time period is in 1966 where three members of the Israeli Mossad have been sent to capture the Nazi war criminal “the Surgeon of Birkenau” (a thinly disguised fictional version of Mengele) from East Berlin and send him for trial in Israel. They return to Israel, reporting their mission was a partial failure as they were forced to kill their target when unable to get him out of East Berlin. Thirty years later, having lived with the complete failure of their mission, they are threatened by the full truth coming out.
This story involving espionage and deceptions offers a lot for the actors to work with, and there should be several academy award nominations coming out of this, most notably for Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain in the portrayal of Rachel Singer, the movies’ main character. I think Chastain probably gave a slightly better performance, but this was partly because she had more screen time. (This is at least a rarity in Hollywood I now have two women in the best actress category to root for this year…all but unheard of in the misogynistic wasteland that is Hollywood). The acting job of Jesper Christiansen provided one of the most sociopathically evil Nazi’s to grace the screen in years (although it did not surpass the gold standard of evil set by Gregory Peck in The Boys from Brazil, it came disturbingly close). And while nothing in this movie caused me to change my absolute hatred of Sam Worthington and all his characters, at least in this case the character was a coward and morally responsible for most of the problems in the movie, so I was justified in my hatred in this case (every other movie Worthington has done I’ve merely been justified by the fact that those movies are complete wastes of film).
In every respect that one can judge a movie this movie is a superior film. Its themes are powerful and its performance superb. I would wager that this movie will deservedly gain a best picture nomination, and if nothing better comes out this year it should win best picture. You need to see this movie. Every other this year has been a rental or worth seeing on the big screen only because it was mildly enjoyable and it was worth seeing the special effects on the big screen. This movie is truly great art and if we are ever going to convince Hollywood to make more movies like this then we have to encourage them with ticket sale at the box office. Go see this movie.
Now one may wonder why, as opposed to most political themed movies I didn’t title this “Movies for Conservatives”? After all this movie deals with the consequence of deception to one’s character and life. It deals with the absolute evil of socialism (yes, Nazism—National Socialism—is socialism, and butchers like the one seen in this movie are its inevitable conclusions) and the hatred and perverted creatures it breeds. It deals with the toll that lies take on ones soul, and of course how it becomes an impossible debt to pay (yes there is a reason for the title). All things I would like to think go hand in hand with conservative values…but I’m just not cynical enough to say that these are only conservative values…I hope.
Spoilers ahead….please go see the movie first; these reflections make more sense when you have the whole scope of the film in your mind.
No, really go see it first.
Okay you were warned, don’t blame me if you don’t feel the full force of the movie.
The movie deals with several weighty themes. The first and most important is the nature of truth and lies. Our three main characters tell a lie about their failure, a lie they know will never be challenged, a lie that is meant to help their country…is it worth it? One looks at real history and sees that Mengele escaped justice in real life and how this is a black mark, not just on Israel, but on the civilized world as a whole that we let this piece of trash die living in relative freedom never having to face his crimes. What does this say about our competence, our character, our resolve in the face of evil. This is a man who earned the name “Angel of Death” and we let him live in freedom and die of old age. (And even worse, if you’re a Nazi who knew even the first thing about firing rockets we gave you a free pass and U.S. citizenship). Makes you wonder what civilization is worth if we allow such unquestionable evil to go unpunished (it’s not like we didn’t know where they were). Might it be more comfortable if we thought as a country—be it Israel or the U.S.—had stood for something and actually tracked these monsters down? When the characters were debating telling the lie about their complete failure I heard overtones of the equally political film The Dark Knight and the last few scenes where is was pointed out that “Sometimes people need to have their faith rewarded” even at the cost of a lie. One of the better reviews I saw for this movie brought up the Churchill quote “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,” and it wouldn’t be hard to make the argument that Israel has in reality been in a perpetual state of war against barbarians at its gates from the first day of its creation, and that its population was always in need of a moral boost. (Yes I said barbarians, and my only apology is to the ancient culture who had that name applied to them who understood reason, civilization, and humanity far more than then the wretches in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya and the quite fictional state of Palestine). However this is all sophistry at some level. But it’s a sophistry the writers and director of this The Debt wanted you to indulge in. Only then does it become evident how apparent and how valuable the truth is. It is something that is so easily rationalized away, always in the name of greater values and higher purposes…and always at the cost of one’s soul, as even the most amoral of the three has trouble living with the lie…especially because “but at the length truth will out” and demand the debt that needs to be paid.
Next is the question and nature of evil. The villain of this movie (or at least the main one) is the Mengele type Nazi. For a great deal of the film he demonstrates that banality of evil Ardent noticed in Eichmann’s trial (although seeing a Nazi work as an OBGYN adds a whole new level of disgusting I hardly thought possible). But he is at his most horrendous when he begins to toy with his captors, taunt them, and use them even though he is the one tied up. Really, there was a point that I don’t think a person in the theater wouldn’t have gladly beat that son of bitch to death with a crowbar given the chance—and felt justified in doing it. But the worst part is when he says something you can’t deny. It’s one of the great tricks of literature to put truth (or at least half-truths) in the mouths of evil because it forces us to confront things which we might not want to. At one point the Nazi states that he knew the Nazi’s had won, (and I’m going from memory here) “When it took only 4 guards to lead thousands to the gas chambers and no one ever fought back—even when we took away your children none ever fought back. That is when I knew we had won.” It is a sick fact of the Holocaust that makes you wonder if it would have been nearly as bad if the Jews had fought back. However the problem here, the evil of this statement, is that it is applied to only the Jews, when the truth is that it was the sickness of Europe. All of Europe didn’t fight back. They didn’t fight Hitler or Mussolini on the continent as they expanded their influence. Austria and Czechoslovakia were taken without firing a single bullet, the French may have fired about a dozen before eagerly capitulating and handing over every Jew they could find with a determination that probably even freaked out the Nazis. It seemed only the Poles (who were hopelessly outnumbered) and the British (who had spent a decade trying to appease the monster) who seemed to have even a mild ability to fight back (and given the recent events in London it appears that whatever streak the British once had to fight evil has been beaten out them). It wasn’t the Jews who didn’t fight back, it was all of Europe. Which only leaves the question…what evils are we not fighting against today, willingly allowing thousands to be led by a handful through fear. (Hint: Hitler promised great change and the hope of a thousand year Reich, and as every German Jew knows nothing can stand in the way of power of millions of voices calling for change).