Monday, September 5, 2011

The Debt Movie Review: Questions on Jewish Justice and Vengeance

Vengeance is not Jewish. This is an idea that people throughout history have had difficulty reconciling with their own (at times) warped views of Jewish people. A sense of fairness and justice has primacy in Jewish intellectual and political history. From Shylock to Steven Spielberg’s Munich the question rages on: What is fair and just punishment for a crime and when do we cross the line in to pure revenge.

John Madden’s The Debt, based on the 2007 Israeli film Ha Hov (unseen by me), treads similar ground to Munich, although with far less cunning insight. And I’ve never viewed Steven Spielberg as a particularly insightful or challenging filmmaker. The Debt concerns a fictional Mossad mission to capture The Surgeon of Birkenau, a Nazi war criminal obviously modeled on Josef Mengele, who performed grotesque medical experiments on Jewish and Roma men, women, and children at Auschwitz.

The principal agents involved in the mission are Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Martom Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington). They will have to infiltrate East Berlin under assumed identities, capture Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen) and sneak him across the border into West Berlin after which he will stand trial in Israel. The story begins, however, in Tel Aviv in 1997 where Rachel’s daughter, Sarah, has just had a book published detailing the heroic actions of her mother (played by Helen Mirren in the later scenes), who suffered injuries from Vogel in an escape attempt and had to shoot him dead to stop him escaping. Stephan (Tom Wilkinson later) is also present at the book launch, having not only been the mission leader, but also Sarah’s father and Rachel’s ex-husband. David’s (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) absence is the result of a shocking development which I shouldn’t reveal because it is related to the major plot point on which the whole story hinges.

After these brief scenes in Tel Aviv, the film shifts its focus exclusively to Berlin in 1966. The section centered on the planning and execution of the mission are the most compelling and to some extent I wish screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan had trimmed the fat and expounded on this aspect of the story more. These scenes are as taut as political or spy thrillers tend to be. It takes time out for characterization and good writing. It doesn’t ever waste our time showing us the suits in an office back in Jerusalem wringing their hands trying to make important decisions. No, those scenes are reserved for the vast majority of modern-day thrillers and The Debt is too smart to have any of it. It wisely sticks entirely with the three agents, knowing that with them lies all the dramatic tension.

This is an interesting project for Madden as a director. I think of him principally in reference to costume dramas like Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown or Shakespeare in Love, but he’s got the chops to handle a thriller, aided a great deal by editor Alexander Berner, Thomas Newman’s tense and pulsating score, and cinematographer Ben Davis, who convincingly helps Budapest double for the dreary and gray Berlin behind The Wall.

I mentioned characterization. Rachel and David are both evenly developed. Both lost family members in the Holocaust, facts which inform their motivations and decisions in several key moments. The movie unfortunately dodges an opportunity to explore how their feelings of suffering and victimhood contribute to their desire to capture a Nazi monster. David talks incessantly about the need for justice, for the world to see the truth. The curious thing is that Stephan, who remarks to Rachel that even after two years working together, he hardly knows anything about David. In spite of this, by the end of the film we know far more about David than we do about Stephan, who seems to be motivated almost entirely by professional ambition, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by Vogel while in captivity. Stephan comes across as so steely, which is important considering the developments that occur 30 years after the mission, that we can’t crack the surface on his personality.

But I have to come back to the questions of justice. It’s a key theme that the writers don’t have the courage to truly examine. How do you achieve justice for such a murderous monster? Stephan even says not to listen to anything Vogel says because he is not a human being. What is proper justice for such crimes? Is public trial, condemnation and conviction enough? David simply accepts that it is without ever doing any soul-searching (on-screen at least). When one character suggests that as long as the world thinks that Vogel is dead, it will appear that justice has been served and there’s no difference between that and actual justice, where is the great speech or dialogue to counter? Where’s the philosophical history, so integral to Jewish life, to say that the appearance of something is not the same as the reality?

I wonder if the filmmakers had opted to keep the story set entirely in 1966, would they have been able to explore these issues more deeply and perhaps kept the ultimate outcome ambiguous. Or at the very least they might have done more to show how the decisions of Stephan, Rachel, and David affected them personally in later life. The film closes on a note that I found truly disheartening. I don’t want to give away the details, but suffice it to say that it’s a real copout when it comes to the big questions. The Debt is a smart movie, but falls just short of being challenging and intelligent.

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