‘The Debt’ Explores Israeli Justice — and Revenge

This is a guest post by Michael Fox. This article originally ran in the September 2, 2011 print version of the American Jewish World newspaper.
The announcement that the 2007 Israeli drama Ha-Hov (The Debt) was going to be remade in English was widely welcomed, presumably because of the casting of the respected Helen Mirren.
Certainly it wasn’t because people knew and admired the original film, which played just a handful of U.S. festivals.
In fact, this critic was turned off by the Israeli movie’s crass use of a Nazi villain to drive a pulpy suspense yarn. So I was not looking forward to a remake, even if it was by the Oscar-nominated director of the Academy Award-winning Shakespeare in Love, John Madden.
I underestimated Madden’s skill and integrity, frankly, for The Debt is a smart, beautifully crafted thriller that raises serious issues without exploiting or trivializing them.
“[Screenwriter] Peter Straughan and I felt very, very strongly that the last thing in the world we were interested in doing was using the Holocaust and the pursuit of this [Josef] Mengele-type character as a sort of hook to hang a revenge thriller on,” the British director said in a recent interview at a San Francisco hotel. “That seemed to me to be meretricious, and the last place I wanted to go.”
Both The Debt and its Israeli inspiration begin in the mid-1960s with the triumphant return of a trio of young Mossad agents (played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) from a secret overseas mission. Their accomplishment was killing “the Surgeon of Birkenau,” an infamous Nazi living comfortably in East Berlin under an assumed name.
Leap forward 30 years, and the three figures (now played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds) are compelled to revisit the pivotal event that shaped their lives and careers. The bulk of The Debt, consequently, consists of an extended flashback in which we see the German operation in its entirety.
The Debt opens in local theaters on Aug. 31.
The thoughtful Madden, whose career spans, theater, radio, television and film, was diligent at the script stage, on set and in the editing room.
“My responsibility was to pay as much attention to character, and the truth of people’s behavior, rather than simply to engineer the situation where the characters collaborated with the script’s requirement for entertainment,” he explained. “It would grieve me more than anything if we were tagged with the accusation that we were hitching a ride on an appalling circumstance simply to entertain the audience.”
The Debt succeeds completely on that score. One flaw that it shares with the original film, however, is the depiction of Mossad agents as stunningly inexperienced and undisciplined. For Rachel Singer (played by Chastain and, 30 years older, Mirren), it’s her first time in the field, unbelievably.
“We think of Mossad as being a sort of ruthlessly efficient operation, but in its early years I think that this kind of operation — and indeed the one that brought [Adolf] Eichmann to justice — was quite surprisingly ad hoc and created a certain extraordinary pressure on the people involved,” Madden said.
Madden shot a chunk of The Debt in Israel, but on such a packed, tight schedule that he had no time either for sightseeing or shmoozing with real-life Mossad agents. He hopes to do both when he takes the movie to the Haifa Film Festival in October.
One of Madden’s tough decisions, although it occupies just a few seconds of screen time, was having Rachel look at photographs of actual Holocaust victims. This sequence serves to make the Nazi’s crimes real rather than abstract, and also conveys Rachel’s reaction, but it required a sensitive hand.
“It’s a very tricky one,” Madden admits. “Again, I didn’t gratuitously do that to push something down the audience’s throat. Those images are so extraordinarily charged and I certainly did not wish to play that out over any length of time. But I felt it was important to have it in the film visually, to have some evocation of that world. And particularly to watch the effect that was having on the [agent].”
For ultimately The Debt is about the moral responsibility and accountability of the Israelis, not the crimes of Nazis.
“The counterbalance of revenge and retribution is forgiveness,” Madden said. “Not that I’m suggesting for a second that forgiveness is appropriate necessarily in the circumstance that we’re talking about here, but the notion of truth in this film, being a crucial thing to strive for, is a very Shakespearean idea. The [agents] either walk into the light and embrace it, or they walk out into that light and deny it.”