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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Debt

I do not watch spy films too often, though there are ones that I really enjoy and appreciate. The Saint. Munich. Spy Game. The Jason Bourne series. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Ronin. But one of the best spy films I have ever seen came out last year, with little notice. The Debt, directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), was a fantastic thriller about three Mossad agents in the 1960s who capture a Nazi war criminal to bring him to justice, and the fallout from their actions thirty years on. The film was a remake of an Israeli film of the same title from 2007, directed by Assaf Bernstein and starring Gila Almagor.

I had been interested in this film when I saw the trailer, but the film's release was pushed back, and by the time it came out I had forgotten about it. I rented it this month, and it's an excellent film with a lot of suspense, and a very intelligent and complex female lead in the character of Rachel Singer, portrayed by Jessica Chastain (in the 1965 scenes) and Helen Mirren (in the 1997 scenes). Both actresses carry this elegant grace and quiet intelligence to them that fully develops the character, making both an admirable person and deeply vulnerable. In the 1960s scenes, young Rachel is very serious and dedicated to her work as a Mossad agent, whose fragile beauty is a deception for her quick Krav Maga moves and inner quest for vengeance.

The story shifts between the past and present, as the former agents are honored through a book by Rachel's daughter for their valiant work in capturing this notorious criminal named Dieter Vogel, nicknamed the "Surgeon of Birkenau" for his horrifying medical "experiments" on Jewish prisoners during WWII. The secrecy and stress of agent life has taken a toll on Rachel's life, as she is an emotionally removed person. In the party scenes for her daughter's book, she is polite but reticent, as if there but not truly present, for reasons related to the capture that are revealed later on.

In the past, the agents, Rachel (Chastain), David Peretz ( Sam Worthington), and Stefan (Martin Csokas) go undercover into East Berlin, and Rachel and David pose as a married German couple. Rachel implements herself into Vogel's OB-GYN practice by playing a patient undergoing a routine gynecological exam. She, in those scenes, is both vulnerable and in control of the situation. Vulnerable because she is a patient and allowing the doctor to examine her genitals, but in control because she is playing an innocent housewife, and can ask pointed questions and take secret photos without suspicion, using her locket as a camera. And given how the agents were children during WWII and most likely lost family members in the Holocaust, the mission is incredibly emotionally driven, posing a threat to let resentment get in the way of objective orders. As through a conversation between Rachel and Stefan about David and the Holocaust:

Stefan: I spent two years with him and I don't know him. Nobody knows him. He's alone.
Rachel: What about family? (Stefan doesn't answer and Rachel realizes what he means) All of them?
Stefan: All of them. Maybe it's not always a blessing to survive.

A standout scene involves a border crossing at a Berlin transit station, closed but guarded by the Stasi, the East German secret police (watch The Lives of Others for a detailed understanding of their story). As trains pass, timing is everything, and the agents are meticulous in knowing exactly when to move, and how to maneuver pass the policemen. It is a scene that takes its time in building, and it's spy scenes like this in films that makes me feel like an agent myself, my heart beating along with the agents onscreen. While I knew the agents would survive (as they appear in the film thirty years later), it's still an excellent moment of suspense.

A flaw to the film is that while I found the character of Rachel fascinating, I had trouble telling the male agents apart, and remembering their names, both when they were young and when they were middle-aged. They didn't leave much an impression on me, because they seemed more like generic male agents, while Rachel, besides being a woman, had the contradictory nature that I noted before. The film centers on her, and it was due to the talents of the writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, and the actresses Chastain and Mirren, that made Rachel a memorable and excellent character.

Another problem that I had was that whereas the characters were Israeli, they were played by Anglo actors from England, America, Australia, and New Zealand. While I know that Israeli people have Eastern European roots from immigrating to Israel after WWII, and could have Ashkenazim Jewish features, it was a little distracting seeing obviously English, Christian-looking people putting on Israeli accents to play these characters. But that was a minor nitpick.

I highly recommend this film. It is an intelligent spy film that got little attention when it was released, and continues in the tradition of spy films that are complex and that raise issues of the consequences of vengeance (much like Munich did), as well as featuring a heroine who isn't a super-spy a la Evelyn Salt or Sydney Bristow (as much as I liked Salt and Alias). The film is streaming on Youtube, and is well worth a watch.

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