The British film “The Debt”, which opened here in the U.S. this weekend, is a remake of an Israeli film from a few years ago of the same name. It deals with a great many themes, too many to address in a single blog post. However if you are prepared, gentle reader, to challenge yourself and go see this film, you will not only find it entertaining – with plenty of Hitchcockian touches and John Le Carré thrills, punctuated by some superb acting – but you will also find it challenging, raising a number of issues for the thinking man to consider. And one of the most fundamental of them, for this reviewer, was its frank look at the question of evil.
The film is a tale told in flashback, but not in a strictly linear fashion, meaning the viewer must actually pay attention to what is going on. I have seen several reviewers complain about this fact but personally, I found it engaged, as Poirot would say, the little gray cells. That the filmmaker expects his audience to use their brains seems rather refreshing in an entertainment era when the stimulation of one’s brain – let alone the assumption that the viewer has one – seems to have been abandoned in favor of using the cheap and obvious to stimulate other bodily regions.
The film begins with a book launch event, in which the daughter of Helen Mirren’s character Rachel tells a story that has had a profound impact on the main characters of the film. Stefan, David, and Rachel, three agents of the Mossad, Israel’s legendary intelligence agency, are sent to East Berlin in the 1960′s to capture Dr. Vogel, a man who is working as a gynecologist but who had previously performed human experimentation in a Nazi concentration camp. What happens to him, and to each of them, is woven into a story that at times is very much like one of the “Bourne” series, and at times reminiscent of films such as “Munich” and “Death and the Maiden”.
At the core of “The Debt” is a sequence in which the young Israeli agents hold their man prisoner, feeding him and keeping him clean against his will, until he can be sent to Israel for trial. The way in which each of the three reacts to the old Nazi is telling about their character. Stefan, being older than the rest and the leader of the group, never lets the prisoner speak to him. He has seen his like before, and says he views the doctor as an animal; he mocks and shows his contempt for Dr. Vogel and his ideology by playing and singing a kind of slag-rendition of “Deutschland, Deutschland” on the piano.
The exchanges between Dr. Vogel and Rachel, and Dr. Vogel and David, are very different from his interactions with Stefan, in part because they allow him to speak, but also because neither of them treats him as Stefan does. And here we move into somewhat different cinematic territory from either a spy film or Holocaust film, for as I watched these sequences my mind kept going back to two reference points: “The Exorcist” and “The Third Man”. Of course, director John Madden is not deliberately evoking either of these movies, but if the reader will indulge me, I believe he will see why I made these connections.
If you have not seen “The Exorcist” in some time, or dismiss it as mere Halloween fare, you are missing the point. Spinning heads and pea-soup vomit aside, what is truly terrifying about the film is not what takes place physically, but psychologically, in the tony Georgetown home of Regan, the possessed young girl. The Devil *knows* things about those who are holding him prisoner, and uses his uncanny, infernal mixture of knowledge and twisted reason to try to affect the hearts and minds of his jailers. By causing them grief or doubt, he hopes he can take advantage of their indecision.
Similarly, the famous “cuckoo clock” speech in “The Third Man”, when Orson Welles and Jospeh Cotten are on the ferris wheel, employs a kind of logic of justification for acts of evil. Harry Lime (Welles), realizing that his old friend is no longer entirely loyal to him after having seen the evil that Harry has done, points out that during decades of strife under the Borgias and others, Italy gave rise to Michelangelo, Da Vinci, the Renaissance, and all that flowed from it, whereas under centuries of peace and harmony, the Swiss only managed to produce the cuckoo clock. It is an over-simplification, obviously, but it raises an issue that Harry – in loco diaboli – wants his listener to consider, in an attempt to save and justify himself: is “evil” really such a bad thing?
So it is that in “The Debt”, Dr. Vogel preys on Rachel’s emotions, and on David’s doubts. Like Father Damian Karras in “The Exorcist”, Rachel is subjected to mental torture about the fate of her mother, which causes her to lash out at the demonic doctor. She has, in several superbly restrained scenes, literally put herself in Dr. Vogel’s hands, but even though now the tables are turned and he is in her power, he manipulates his knowledge of her in deliberately painful ways. He wounds her even though he is physically restrained, just as was the case with Linda Blair’s character of the possessed child, Regan.
Far worse in scope is Dr. Vogel’s challenge to David, about how easy it was for the Nazis to succeed in exterminating the Jews, and whether the Jews ought not to look at their own role in how the Holocaust took place. Earlier in the film we learnt that David lost every single member of his family in the Holocaust, and cannot open up to others about his sense of guilt as to why that happened, and why he survived and they did not. Like Harry Lime’s cuckoo clock speech, Dr. Vogel’s words to David form an infernal over-simplification of a complicated subject, and yet the words have a profound impact on David. My Jewish readers in particular may find this exchange difficult to watch, and even as a Catholic European-American it made me squirm, mentally. I do not know whether this bit of the script was taken from the original, Israeli version of the film, having not seen it, but it is a profoundly disturbing bit of evil to put on film.
It is of course usually the case that evil does not gain control over man through physical attack, but rather through the subtleties of the mind. From Adam and Eve being tempted by the Serpent into committing sin, to the rotting away of human decency through our educational, cultural, and political institutions coming to embrace and celebrate selfishness over self-sacrifice, Satan does not have to actually show up, horns and all, to throw us into chaos: all he needs is to put an idea into someone’s mind, and then twist it. As Shakespeare writes in “The Merchant of Venice”, Act I Scene iii, “The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
There are many good reasons to see “The Debt” – terrific suspense moments; interesting young actors whom I was not familiar with; the always-superb Helen Mirren, whose performances are much beloved of thinking men and women in this country; and so on. It is not a perfect film, though I did not find its flaws to detract from the impact of the work. For this reviewer, the best recommendation I can make is to say it is a superb cautionary tale, showing how easy it is to allow evil to walk in and start affecting your thinking – and subsequent behavior – if you are not careful.