Although the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel have provided much inspiration for storytellers, a dark thriller telling the story of a group of Mossad agents who spectacularly fail to achieve their objective may be a new take on the issues for many film viewers. Echoes of Munich are heard throughout the film, although its lack of ‘Hollywood finish’ works in its favour.
When three young Mossad operatives undertake to capture and convey the ‘Surgeon of Birkenau’ back to Israel to face trial for atrocities committed during the Second World War, they return as heroes to a young nation struggling to recover from the incredible insults sustained in the concentration camps scattered throughout Europe. Although they don’t manage to complete their second objective, their claim to have killed him during an escape attempt is greeted with gratitude, and they go on to have high profile careers. Festering away within all of them is their knowledge of what really occurred, and the revelation that a dementia sufferer in a nursing home is claiming to be the famous ‘Surgeon’ will mean their long-held secrets will be brought to light.
There is a sense that every character within The Debt is blackened by their lies and deceipt. Edgar Selge allows Max Reiner (the former surgeon) to be both horrifying and calculating, and his character is perhaps the most straightforward of the four central turns. His sharp facial features work to illustrate his underlying evil, while his lack of remorse for his actions mean he earns another level of disgust. Of the three agents tasked with capturing him, the only to be properly developed is Rachel Berner (Gila Almagor and Neta Garti). Berner is a sympathetic character in her younger iteration, but harder to appreciate in the older version given the lie she has evidently been prospering from for so many years. The two actresses tasked with bringing her to life both do an excellent job, although the usual problem of slightly different characteristics applying to the role with two actors playing it does make certain moments less powerful.
The major weakness of the film is its failure to adequately develop Berner’s colleagues enough to justify the decisions and burdens the three will share. Although the film is clearly intended as a study of the effect of each decision on Berner, the two male Mossad agents come in and out of the story without adding depth. This allows the film to move quickly, not being held back by the burden of excess character development, but at just 93 minutes it could perhaps afford more time with these pivotal male roles.
The pacing of the film is brisk, with the build-up of tension on the path to the final confrontation well handled, and in a way that should have audiences truly involved in the story and invested in its outcome. The Debt is an effective thriller and a worthwhile addition to the AICE Israeli Film Festival lineup for 2008.Rating: