The Debt

The Debt (החוב)
Made in: Israel
Language: Hebrew, German, Russian
Director: Assaf Bernstein
Starring: Gila Almagor, Neta Garty, Itay Tiran, Alex Peleg, Yehezkel Lazarov, Oded Teomi, Edgar Selge
Year: 2007

Synopsis: The year is 1964 (the story is not based on actual events). A team of three Mossad agents is sent to Berlin to capture Nazi war criminal Max Rainer (Edgar Selge). Known as the infamous "Surgeon of Birkenau," Rainer is responsible for having conducted gruesome medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners.

After the Second World War, Rainer flees and sets up a medical practice as a gynecologist.

The Mossad track him down, and come up with a plan to abduct him. Then, the he is to be put on public trial back in Israel. The agents in charge of the operation are Rachel (Neta Garty), Zvi (Itay Tiran), and Ehud (Yehezkel Lazarov). All are young and brilliant, but do not yet realize just how much a mental/physical toll their mission will have on them.

Although the ingenious plan to capture Rainer succeeds at first, their captive proves to be a psychologically cunning and ruthless subject. And in a moment of carelessness, Rainer escapes and goes underground.

A little over thirty years later, an aging Rachel (Gila Almagor) and her two former compatriots discover Rainer's whereabouts. Although still emotionally affected and conflicted, Gila agrees to finish their original mission. She sets off for the Ukraine, where hunting the monster may prove even more dangerous than before...

The Good: Without elaborate stunts, slick fight sequences, or pulse-pounding shoot-outs, The Debt is a film that creates high tension by taking its time. Top secret operations often involve patience, and director Assaf Bernstein gives the audience a very good idea of just how excruciating it is to wait.

The cast does an excellent job conveying the emotional burden of the situation, and I had to keep reminding myself that the story was fictional. 

The structure of the film works very well. The juxtaposition of time periods works smoothly, and I never felt lost. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been to edit this film!

Most memorable was Edgar Selge's portrayal as Nazi war criminal Max Rainer. The guy is genuinely creepy, and the psychological terror he creates is far more effective than any act of physical violence that Hollywood movies tend to resort to.

The Bad: As effective as The Debt is, in some places it is way too slow. Also, towards the second half, the story focuses almost entirely on Rachel. Since the two other characters, Zvi and Ehud, were so influential to her past, it was a bit disappointing that their roles became much more limited as the film approached the final act.

Who would like this film: The Debt is not for everyone. I'd recommend it if you're already an experienced foreign film viewer, or if you're looking for something more serious. It'll also appeal to those who are interested in foreign languages.

It's a mature, clever, and methodical piece with a lot of emotional depth. It doesn't get lost exploring every detail of its historical subject matter, and does a very good job remaining focused on the plot.

It was remade in 2011 into a more mainstream Hollywood film of the same title, which stars Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, and some other famous people. I haven't seen it yet but will give it a look.

(3 stars out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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