Will the Nazis ever cease to be fertile fodder for filmmakers? Let's hope not. We need compelling true stories like Schindler's List and cogent fictions like Marathon Man, especially as long as some people still try to claim it never happened.
What we don't need is The Debt, a 2010 British thriller based on a 2007 Israeli thriller, about three young Mossad agents who conduct a covert mission in 1966 to extract and bring to justice the sanguinary Surgeon of Birkenau, who's now living an unjustly peaceful life as a gynecologist in East Germany. They nab him, but things go awry in the effort to get him out of Germany, the result of which is a somewhat preposterous twist that propels a somewhat preposterous climax.
The Debt is an old-fashioned Euro-thriller, motivated more by good intentions than dramatic purpose, with actors of different nationalities speaking accented English dialogue that sounds a little hokey even when the accents sound a little right. The story takes place in two eras: in the 1960s, with Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas as the young trio; and in 1997, with Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson as the aging heroes now facing the consequences of the aforementioned twist.
You'd expect great acting from a cast like this, but Hinds only pouts, Wilkinson scowls and growls, and the two younger men work in two dimensions. Only Mirren has some moments, although that may be because she's Mirren, and Chastain (The Tree of Life) occasionally proves herself to be as fierce and lachrymose as Julianne Moore, the cinema's senior ginger.
John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) directs both solidly and stolidly: His storytelling is brisk, but there's no room for nuanced emotions in what's mostly a melodrama, and the screenplay gives little sense of what's at stake for the spirit and dignity of the young Israeli nation. Worse yet, there's a clumsy love triangle, so the climax involves righting personal wrongs as well as historical ones, placing it squarely in hill-of-beans territory.
Still, there are some moments: When the young woman agent must submit to a vaginal exam by a man who she knows tortured people; when the captive Nazi uses his guile to penetrate the psyches of his captors. These are the moments that remind us of the best of a genre that may still have some life in it.
Directed by John Madden
Starring Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson