The Debt Review

poster from the Miramax Films movie The Debt

Yay! I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie for months, and now it’s finally here. It’s just a shame that it came out on the same day as Apollo 18, the OTHER movie I’ve been waiting to see for months. But it was no contest picking which one to see this week. Sam Worthington always beats not Sam Worthington, since he’s on the Awesome List. Of course, it also helped that the movie itself looked really interesting. Sort of like Munich but with a World War II connection.

A trio of Mossad agents in 1997 find their past coming back to haunt them when a book is released about their 1966 mission to capture the notorious Surgeon of Birkenau.

Before you ask, no, The Debt is not based on a true story or even a book. It’s based on an Isreali film from 1997 called Ha-Hov. The Surgeon of Birkenau is not real either, though he is obviously based on Josef Mengle (often referred to as the Butcher of Birkenau) who performed some of the same medical experiments on concentration camp victims that are attributed to the Surgeon in this movie. The fact that it’s made up doesn’t take much away from the movie, though. It’s still tense, fascinating, and heartrending.


The movie starts in the “present” (or what was the present when Ha Hov was filmed, anyway). Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), her ex-husband Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkenson) and their former friend David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds) are being touted as heroes in the book Rachel’s daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) has written about the mission they went on in 1996, which resulted in the death of a man known as the Surgeon of Birkenau. But none of them are really happy about the attention, and you’ve got to wonder why. Especially when David gets a letter and then does something rather drastic.

Rachel meets with Stephan from the Miramax Films movie The Debt

So… this secret… it’s maybe not as secret as we thought?

After this tragedy, we revert back to 1966 to see the real version of what happened during the mission, which doesn’t exactly match up with the version in Sarah’s book, especially in one big glaring way. This mystery – what could have happened in 1966 that would make David do that and why did they lie about it – is the central question in the story, but strangely, I didn’t wonder about it. If I had, I probably would have guessed what the big secret was. Instead, I was too caught up in the performances. Especially since the old versions and the young versions don’t LOOK like each other, but they ARE like each other. It’s weird.

Ciaran Hinds as old David from the Miramax Films movie The Debt

I mean, come on, you’d have to put Sam Worthington’s head on the rack
and stretch it to make him look like Ciaran Hinds.

The three Mossad agents were strangers in 1966. Rachel (Jessica Chastain), who was only 25, was the last to cross through the checkpoint into Soviet controlled East Berlin, where she met up with her pretend husband David (Sam Worthington) and their Mossad handler Stephan (Marton Csokas). The three of them would live crammed together in a junky apartment under aliases as they maneuvered Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christianson), a local gynecologist, into a position where they could spirit him out of the country to stand trial for his crimes as the Surgeon of Birkenau. All three are completely dedicated to the mission – so dedicated that Rachel would even let a Nazi butcher mess around in her vagina!

the Surgeon of Birkenau from the Miramax Films movie The Debt

Open wide and say “ahh”

Their dedication to bringing the Surgeon down stems from the fact that they all lost family in the Holocaust, which they mention briefly. I wanted more details about their pasts – sure their families were killed, but what happened to THEM? They would all have been under ten during the war. Were they rescued from the camps? Did their parents send them away before the deportations began? Were they hidden by neighbors? If there was a book version of this story, I would buy it just to find out. But all they give us in the movie is a sound byte. For the rest, we have to try and read the actors’ faces. And I’ll tell you right now: if they’d hired different people, I doubt it would have worked.

Stephan, David, and Rachel have a drink from the Miramax Films movie The Debt

They just have such expressive faces.

Rachel, for instance, is nervous because it’s her first mission. She’s also terrified of the Surgeon and looking for someone – preferably David – to lean on for support.

David about to kiss Rachel from the Miramax Films movie The Debt

Hey, baby.

Stephan is older and pushier. He drinks, drives, speaks, and shoots with abandon and has no trouble going for what he wants – namely a promotion and to get Rachel into bed.

Stephan hits on Rachel from the Miramax Films movie The Debt

Hey, baby.

The only thing standing in his way is David, who seems to have suffered the most out of all of them. He’s a repressed cauldron of anger and agony who is clinging desperately to the notion of doing the right thing and has no idea what to do with his feelings for Rachel.

Rachel, David and Stephan practice fighting from the Miramax Films movie The Debt

In short, they’re a pretty explosive mix even before you add in the martial arts skills

They do succeed in capturing the Surgeon but (and this is not a spoiler, it’s in the trailer) end up stuck with him in the apartment for days while they try to get him out of the country, the three of them fighting over what should be done with him. This is where the secret lies and why the climax of the film is a desperate scrabble to the death between Helen Mirren and an old man (I won’t tell you which one) that should have been a hilarious slo-mo geriatric throwdown but was actually armrest-grippingly tense.

Rachel hides from the Miramax Films movie The Debt

Oh my god! Don’t even breathe.

There are a few things in the movie that I didn’t like, apart from the lack of back story. David’s drastic action, for instance, seems out of character to me, and I’m not sure I follow their logic when they decide to lie about their big secret. But the quality of the performances and the way the movie manages to twist you up in knots more than makes up for it. Go see it, but don’t cut your fingernails beforehand. You’re going to need them to chew on.

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