John Madden’s The Debt (2010) takes us on a journey from the streets of modern Tel Aviv to Berlin 1966. Madden—who is also responsible for films such as Shakespeare in Love (1998), Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (1997), and Proof (2005)—invites us into the psyche of three Israeli special operatives after a Nazi war criminal. Yet the film is more than just a spy thriller; it explores the human need for retribution, questioning the various incarnations of what one needs to move on. By expressing the internal struggles of its three fictional agents, the story exposes the very real regret of a nation and a diaspora of an opportunity lost.
We begin in Tel Aviv 1997, with our three Mossad agents now retired—played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds—yet still famous for the capture of Nazi war criminal Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen). A flashback to their lives in East Berlin shows that their story of heroic capture has deceived the world for thirty years. Back in 1997, we see the struggle between truth, justice, and retribution as an old man claiming to be Vogel suddenly appears in a nursing home.
The three young Mossad agents, Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), David Peretz (Sam Worthington), and Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) are on a mission to capture the Surgeon of Birkenau, a man responsible for the torture and murder of Jews during the Holocaust. (Spoiler Alert) Yet with their target in site and his capture imminent, the three fumble into a botched escape, relegating all of them to a psychological prison in East Berlin. For weeks they hold him captive in a small townhouse, trying to preserve his strength until they can bring him in front of a judge. This is Peretz’s life mission, to bring the Nazi war criminal to trial and to allow the world to bear witness to his atrocious past. Meanwhile, Gold questions whether they should not just kill him themselves. Yet, Vogel is manipulative. While the others try to remain stoic and resistant to his derisive digs, Vogel manages to create a rift between the three operatives, one that is deep enough for him to successfully escape. So as to avoid the disappointment from their own government, they tell the world that Vogel is dead.
The characters’ struggle with their unfulfilled duty mirrors the regret of an entire diaspora. The film explores the perhaps real disappointment of having never caught one of the most infamous Nazi war criminals, Dr. Josef Mengele. As a surgeon at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he performed horrendous experiments on Jewish prisoners—particularly on twins—having been responsible for the amputations of limbs to create Siamese twins, the blindness of children in an attempt to change eye color with chemicals, and the murder of prisoners to be dissected like animals in a lab. In the documentary Forgiving Dr. Mengele (2006), we meet Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Mengele’s horrific experiments at Auschwitz. In 1978, she began an initiative to find the remaining Mengele Twins and to document and share their experiences with the world. She was able to locate 122 twins, and, consequently, in 1985 they formed the group CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors). She has started a Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana of the same name. Her conception of retribution is simple: forgiveness. For Kor, the act of forgiveness serves the purpose of self-empowerment, as a way to take back control over her experiences, to stop being a victim, and to release the burden of hatred from her heart. Her pledge of forgiveness is extremely controversial and one that splits not only CANDLES but the greater Jewish Diaspora. Many have not forgiven the Nazis, seeing an admission of fault or an apology as a prerequisite for forgiveness. According to Kor, her own forgiveness has nothing to do with the oppressor and everything to do with the individual seeking peace from the atrocities.
It was Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Holocaust survivor, who began the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Austria, through which he became known as a Nazi hunter. He dedicated the rest of his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals, and is the person responsible for having located Adolf Eichmann, a major organizer of the Holocaust. Both Eichmann and Mengele had been hiding in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but the government had refused to extradite them. Instead, Mossad agents kidnapped Eichmann, holding him hostage until it was safe to escape, much like the plot of The Debt. Except in real life, Eichmann eventually made it to trial. Wiesenthal, in a History Channel program from 1979 entitled In Search of…The Angel of Death (aka Joseph Mengele) mimics the feelings of the fictional David Peretz in The Debt: “We need Mengele before a trial as a witness to history. The trial has a bigger importance than the sentence.”Yet Mengele, having heard about the capture of his former colleague, escaped and was successful in averting the authorities for the rest of his life. Imagine the frustration of both the Israeli and German governments, as well as the entire Jewish Diaspora as Dr. Mengele roamed free in South America, just beyond their grasp, until his death in Brazil in 1979. The Debt serves as a “what if” scenario, a final retribution, albeit in the form of fiction, for the man who committed such atrocious acts.
This compelling film at first seems to be an intellectual, art house thriller, yet by the end, it unfortunately serves us a predictable Hollywood wrap-up, where truth prevails and the Nazi war criminal finally comes to his end. A more compelling plot would leave the characters struggling with their own sacrifice—the choice to spare the diaspora from disappointment, instead electing to bear the weight of Vogel’s continued freedom themselves. It seems almost implausible that Vogel would resurface, even more outlandish that a struggle would ensue between a woman in her fifties and a man in his eighties, the latter of whom eventually falling to his death, the former of which left badly wounded and possibly dead. Yet, when one puts this fictional plot into the greater context of Dr. Josef Mengele’s real story—of having apparently never admitted remorse for his crimes, for having been allowed to escape to South America, and for having lived the rest of his life in freedom after such cruelties—you understand somewhat the choice of a Hollywood ending. As the characters’ struggles embody the greater regret of both the diaspora and the governments from which Mengele narrowly escaped, it seems only appropriate that the writers would take the opportunity to right a wrong, if only via fiction.
That said, it is still somewhat hard to accept a Hollywood ending to an otherwise captivating film. Like Rachel, Stephan, and David, maybe we should have been left with the reality of our own regret. The young Stephan convinced the others that a life in hiding was enough of a punishment for Vogel, a sentiment also echoed by real life Simon Wiesenthal about Mengele: “If he will die before me he will not die in peace because he has no rest. He’s going from place to place. And this is also part of a sentence.” Not everyone has the strength of Eva Mozes Kor, who has already forgiven but will never forget. She has her own retribution—in a lifted burden; in the power she has taken back from her oppressor; and from the numerous Holocaust educational initiatives in which she is actively involved. Yet, perhaps for some, the film feels like the retribution—albeit a sort of fictional trial—for which we have all been waiting.Holocaust, Justice, Psychology, Israel, Germany