A key scene in The Debt enacts a powerful Jewish revenge fantasy rarely seen onscreen. Held captive by three young Mossad agents, a Nazi doctor rants about Jewish weakness, complaining that the victims of the Holocaust went too willingly to their fates. One of the agents responds to this outburst by beating the hell out of the Nazi. It may be politically incorrect to admit it, but I felt like cheering. I also wondered why Jews in English-language films so infrequently get to kick ass. (Obvious exceptions, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Edward Zwick’s Defiance and Steven Spielberg’s Munich, only prove the point.)
The Debt begins in 1997, as retired Mossad agents Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) learn about the death of their colleague, David (Ciarán Hinds). All of them have been treated as heroes in Israel because they tracked down the Nazi Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in 1960s East Berlin. (The 20-something Rachel, Stephan and David are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington, respectively.) But the official story of their actions at the time isn’t entirely accurate.
To put it mildly, The Debt is far more concerned with ethical responsibility than Inglourious Basterds. As middle-aged adults, The Debt’s male characters seem consumed with guilt, while Rachel takes it upon herself to track down Vogel in the Ukraine, even if his survival may be a mere rumor. She and her colleagues have become legends, but this kind of fame hasn’t resulted in happiness or productive lives.
In the U.K., director John Madden has a career in TV and film dating back to 1975, while he’s best-known in the United States for Shakespeare in Love, a bland piece of Oscar bait. The Debt is not another serving of the same weak tea. The screenwriting contributions of X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn and working partner Jane Goldman liven things up considerably. While the script sometimes bites off more than Madden can handle in terms of juggling flashbacks, its central section works as an unpretentious thriller.
The Debt is a remake of a 2007 Israeli film, which leads to some awkwardness in translation (for example, a character reading in English from a book written in Hebrew text). Nevertheless, the source material’s origins allow for a depiction of Jewish strength that’s rare in American and British films. In this country, Jews get to be funny and smart, but they have to stay away from guns. Guilt trips and all, the ass-kicking Jews of The Debt make for a refreshing change.