The Debt is a film in which the inherent awkwardness (as a facetious man might say) involved in being gynaecologically examined by a Nazi mutilator is exploited to its fullest extent. Why? Well, all tact and conventional definitions of ‘love’ aside, Hollywood does love its Nazi war criminals. From Marathon Man to The Boys from Brazil it’s hard to ignore the morbid interest that these morally repugnant monsters seem to elicit. Exploitatively place your heroine in one of the most vulnerable situations imaginable and this interest soon turns to something much more worrying and to the films credit, blisteringly tense.
But whilst the fictional ‘Surgeon of Birkenau’ Hans Vogel’s past actions may belie his true monstrosity, his demeanour is often depicted here as chillingly human. When he is kidnapped by three young Mossad agents in 1965 their attempts to smuggle him onto a train in Berlin suddenly go awry and in a great panic they are forced to bring Vogel to their apartment and come up with another plan. Everyone gets quite angry and stressed and the plan to come up with another plan predictably doesn’t go to plan. The film also features another rather more unremarkable timeline that picks up on their lives after the operation, specifically in 1997.
Throughout however the main hook is to be found in the 60’s story with Jesper Christensen’s war criminal and Jessica Chastain’s fierce Rachel (also played in a so-so fashion by Helen Mirren in the 90’s thread) outshining the other placeholder characters. Chastain who was so great in the Tree of Life again shows what a talent she is alongside some good support from Marton Csokas as fellow Mossad agent Stefan.
However, despite all of the dramatic potential of the premise the film rarely surprised or excited me. Ally this to the misjudged ending and what we have is a somewhat damp squib. When there is so much political and historical subtext to be overtly explored here time is wasted on a romantic subplot and the futile practice of giving Sam Worthington any screen-time. If he’s not hitting something he is mostly a lump of Aussie set dressing waiting to hit something.
To be fair there are some good performances and as alluded to in my opening paragraph there is always some intrigue to be found in a character so seemingly morally bankrupt yet oddly ambiguous as Christensen’s Nazi concentration camp doctor. Indeed, The Debt is competent enough, but besides some interesting vignettes is sadly nothing more than that.