The Debt, a thriller directed by John Madden, seamlessly blends two interlocking themes: the Holocaust and vengeance, as exacted by Israel’s external intelligence agency, the Mossad.
Now available on Netflix, it flits between the mid-1960s and the late 1990s and is set in Israel, East Berlin and Kiev.
The plot is familiar, reminiscent of Israel’s abduction of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. The villain in this case is Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), an unscrupulous German physician who goes under the assumed name of Dr. Bernhard.
Like the infamous Joseph Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death, he conducted sadistic medical experiments on Jews in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland.
Vogel, a gynecologist, practices medicine in East Berlin, the capital of East Germany. Having eluded justice all these years, he is now in the crosshairs of the Mossad, which has assembled a team to bring him back to Israel to face a trial. The squad is composed of three agents: Rachel, David and Stephan.
The Debt, adapted from an Israeli film, begins unfolding at a book launch in Tel Aviv in 1997. The volume in question, written by Rachel’s daughter, is about Rachel’s exploits as a Mossad operative.
Rachel, played alternatively by Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain, passes herself off as a martial arts expert from Argentina when she arrives in East Berlin. She is met there by David (Sam Worthington) and Stephan (Marton Csokas).
Rachel gradually insinuates herself into the good graces of Vogel, whose services, ironically, have been recommended by a Jewish doctor. Being a dyed-in-the-wool antisemite, Vogel can’t help but comment snidely on his Jewish background.
On her third visit to Vogel’s clinic, Rachel incapacitates him. Masquerading as ambulance attendants, David and Stephan whisk him away.
The film, which was released in 2010, offers two versions of Vogel’s fate. He is fatally shot by Rachel as he tries to escape from captivity in a safe house. Or he actually escapes, embarrassing Rachel and her colleagues. The untrue version they choose to present to their superiors in Israel is that Vogel was killed. They are willing to lie to protect their jobs.
Before Vogel attempts to outwit his captors, he spends time with them, chained to a chair. Vogel is a nasty piece of work, claiming that Jews have no right to live because they are cowards and think selfishly only of themselves.
Despite his hateful comments, Rachel treats him remarkably gently as she feeds and shaves him. By contrast, David and Stephan are impatient with Vogel.
Years later, long after her unpleasant encounter with Vogel, Rachel learns that Vogel is alive and well in a nursing home in Ukraine. Asked to assassinate him, she accepts the mission with trepidation.
The Debt, filmed in Israel and Hungary, is competently-crafted, with the lead actors, particularly Chastain, turning in fine performances. There are moments when it falters and almost grinds to a halt, but on the whole, it provides a viewer with sufficient thrills and chills.