The Debt, written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan; based on the Israeli film Ha-Hov, written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum; directed by John Madden; starring Helen Mirren & Jessica Chastain (Rachel 1997/Rachel 1966), Tom Wilkinson & Marton Csokas (Stephan 1997/Stephan 1966), Ciaran Hinds & Sam Worthington (David 1997/ David 1966), and Jesper Christensen (Dieter Vogel – The Surgeon of Birkenau) (2011): Tense little thriller with a big name cast, adapted from an Israeli film. In late 1965, a three-person Mossad team was dispatched to East Germany to locate and apprehend Nazi war criminal “The Surgeon of Birkenau” so that he may be tried for his war-time crimes in Israel.
In 1997, the daughter of Rachel, one of the three Mossad, writes a book about the now-legendary operation. Her mother doesn’t seem too happy about, and neither do the other two former agents, one the daughter’s father, the other a wanderer who has just returned to Israel after twenty years abroad. And then things start happening.
As much of the pleasure of the film lies in the revelations of what is and is not ‘real,’ it’s difficult to summarize the plot any further. The workings of the kidnapping plan seem realistically byzantine and thus prone to failure at every turn; the actors in both eras do fine work (though Jessica Chastain really doesn’t look at all like Helen Mirren); the ambience of Communist Berlin is suitably wormy and dilapidated and devoid of sunlight. When the team returns to Israel, they’re greeted by a burst of sunlight as they exit their military plane. But the difference between Israel and Berlin is not that ethically clear-cut. Recommended.