Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, stories of Nazi atrocities still provide grist for cinematic dramas, mysteries and even comedies. So it is with "The Debt" which takes us back four decades to the search and capture of Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a fictionalized character known as the "Surgeon of Birkenau", for his brutal experiments on Jewish children in Nazi concentration camps.
The story begins and ends in 1997, but in between we flash back to 1966 when three young Israeli military officers are assigned the mission of entering Soviet territory and bringing Vogel back to Israel to stand trial. What happens is a botched attempt to get him out, and, as the story was told, he died in an attempted escape. The three officers go on to become venerated heroes in Israel's commitment to achieve justice after the atrocities of Nazi Germany. The question is: did Vogel really die? Did these officers deserve to be heroes of the state for the next 30 years?
The intrigue of espionage rises to chilling heights as former Mossad secret agents Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), and David (Ciaran Hinds) realize years later that Dieter Vogel might still be alive. Flashing back to 1966, Rachel, Stefan, and David (played in their youth by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) have to sneak behind the Soviet-controlled Berlin Wall and attempt to bring Dieter into the west. When a failed escape attempt renders them helpless, Dieter makes his escape. The official story of his subsequent death becomes part of a legend back in Israel until 30 years later, our three Agents find out that he is still alive. Now, do they attempt to finish him off once and for all? What if their secret is discovered?
Although Vogel is fictional, he is loosely based on the history of Josef Mengele, the SS physician who performed horrific experiments on children at Auschwitz and Birkenau, then escaped to and later died in Paraquay in his 70's. The unsolved question in "The Debt" is: where has Vogel been all this time and why did no one know anything about him?
The important questions raised in "The Debt" are not related to the capture and escape of the "Surgeon of Birkenau," but rather, the psychological questions raised by Vogel during his capture that have to be faced by these young Israelis. What compels a man to view others with such low contempt? How does anyone extend humanity to someone who thinks so inhumanely? What happens when you let your emotions overwhelm your best intentions?
In the end, Rachel, Stefan, and David each have to face the questions that reveal the truth about what they have done. Each has to decide what will be the consequences to family and country if they reveal the truth. More importantly, they have to contemplate what they will have to live with if they don't tell the truth. Is that consequence worth the price?
"The Debt" is a good psychological thriller within a moral conundrum. While most of us will never have to face the kinds of decisions that Rachel, Stefan, and David have to make, we are all faced with the consequences of not being truthful. In that sense, "The Debt" is as much a moral primer as it is a history lesson.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. Have you ever treated another person as less than human? Where did that judgment or opinion originate? If you repented of such a behavior, how did that occur?
2. The attempt by Israel to hold the Nazi officers responsible for their evil was an attempt to find justice in the grave injustice of the holocaust. Do you believe war crime trials help make our world a safer place? Are those who hide behind the cover of war to commit their crimes affected by such trials?
3. The decision of which secrets to tell is a difficult one for any of us. How do you decide what needs to be told and what would cause more damage by the telling?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.