03 May 2012

The Debt

(Before we started 3 Ring Binder and One Reality, Lynne and I had collaborated on a blog in which we rated movies that we had watched. It was a fun way to force ourselves to write a couple of paragraphs every now and then. We had let it lapse unattended for years, but recently we added a few posts, including one for the movie The Debt. Because this movie was so outstanding, and because my comments ventured into areas that I typically cover on One Reality, I thought I would cross-post my write-up here.)

The Debt was gripping from start to finish, brilliantly conceived, and executed with virtuosity in acting, directing, and editing.

The story follows a trio of Israeli agents from their original mission in 1965 (where the young agents are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) to the aftermath thirty years later (where they are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds). We see the mission unfold at the beginning—a plan to trap and retrieve a notorious Nazi “doctor” from East Germany—but simultaneously sense that something is not quite right. And that’s all I’ll say about that: anything more would sabotage the relatively simple but ingenious plot.

There are some moments in the film that will make your blood run cold—particularly, those scenes in which Ms. Chastain’s character, Rachel Singer, is alone with the Nazi monster, Dieter Vogel (a remorseless devil played unforgettably by Jesper Christensen). In a couple of harrowing scenes, young Rachel goes undercover posing as a patient of the evil doctor, who has changed his name since the war and resurfaced as a gynecologist in East Berlin. She must endure his examination, reclining prone on his table, legs spread in the air and feet bare on cold metal, her nakedness covered by one of those sterile, ill-fitting patient gowns that hospitals use, which served only to make stark Rachel’s vulnerability by reminding her that her clothes are piled in a heap across the room, beyond her reach. Meanwhile, the doctor selects from an array of ghastly-looking instruments (evoking images of Jeremy Irons unveiling his tools in Dead Ringers) and patiently brings his head down between her legs, close enough, we presume, for his foul breath to invade Rachel’s most private chambers.

The effectiveness of these scenes is the achievement of the filmmakers and Chastain’s acting: We, the audience, know Rachel is a trained agent—brave, disciplined, and determined—and indeed, she adequately answers the doctor’s questions during the examinations and even manages to surreptitiously snap a few photos using a miniature spy camera. But we have no assurance whatsoever that all will go as planned. Does the doctor see through her cover? Is Rachel hunting the monster, or is she his prey? It is unnerving, and we wonder how Rachel can endure it. (Perhaps she wonders that herself.) In these scenes we feel, in merciless detail, every nuance of Rachel’s fear; we can almost smell it, and the doctor, I’m sure, had the satisfaction of feeling her tremble.
image credit: The New York Times

The larger point, of course, is that this invasion of Rachel’s body is a metaphor for the utter dehumanization of an entire people, the literal and figurative stripping of men, women, and children down to their emaciated flesh and broken souls. We see, in this monster known as the “surgeon of Birkenau,” the limitless brutality of the National Socialists—a scourge upon civilization made all the more horrible by its sober, orderly, implacable administration. Irrationality kills men, but irrationality masquerading as science, reason, and logic murders mankind itself; the first stops a man’s heart from beating, which kills him, but the second stops his mind from functioning also, which enslaves him before he is killed. Unreason, posturing in Reason’s cloak, is a fiend committing murder in a policeman’s uniform—a double crime. To confront a beast in the form of a beast is to scream; to face a beast wearing the scientist’s white lab coat is to be struck dumb—one does not understand what one sees. The mind, disoriented and uncomprehending, freezes, and perhaps it is this, more than a want of courage, that accounts for the seeming impossibility of thousands of humans being herded to the death chambers at the points of only three or four bayonets.

“So, we were all insane? Is that the answer?” taunts the Nazi doctor in captivity, and this is a shrewd question. I think most people today, being unwilling or unable to confront the real underpinnings of the Nazis, are content to dismiss it all as incomprehensible madness—and that is a grave danger. As long as Hollywood and other outlets of popular culture condemn only the National Socialists (the Nazis) while giving the Soviet Socialists (the communists) a free pass, we may confidently say we have learned nothing from the 20th century. (For a terrific video lecture on this topic, see “Socialism’s Legacy,” by Alan Charles Kors.)

The Nazi’s evil did not begin and end with their pogrom against the Jews. The Nazis rose to power as all socialists do: on a moral principle. You have heard this principle principle before—in fact, you were brought up to believe it: that a man must live his life for the sake of others. Get each citizen to accept that a “greater good” than himself exists and the rest will follow. Implicit in every politician’s appeal for personal sacrifice is the license to forcibly dispose of some individuals for the benefit of others.

The systematic murder and enslavement of hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century was not insanity, but an illustration of the fact that ideas matter. Atrocities roll in not on tanks but upon ideas; the tanks are a side issue: those impressions of caterpillar tracks that they leave in the mud, within which the blood of innocents pools, indicate that a certain moral imperative passed this way. Nazis and communists did not achieve popularity by promising to kill Jews and kulaks, but by promising to provide jobs and health care to their people. If this sounds familiar, dear reader, I ask that you do not tell yourself, “No, it couldn’t be so, it must not be so,” but accept the responsibility of thinking before it is too late.

At the end of the The Debt, the Israeli agent Stefan says, in justification of his well-meant actions, “Truth is a luxury. Country, family, children come first.” He did not seem to realize—and perhaps the filmmakers themselves did not even understand—that this fine-sounding phrase “country above truth” is precisely the formula that made the Nazis possible.


Jared said...

I've been hoping that this would come out on Netflix or Hulu Plus. No luck yet, though.

Anonymous said...

Caught the middle of this on Cinemax the other night and was spellbound, and yesterday it was replaying earlier and I finished watching it. One of the most gripping movies I have seen in some time, superbly acted across the board, though Jessica Chastain was the best in my view (never seen her acting before this) and Helen Mirren who played her as an older woman second best. The look on her face as she struggles with the praise and honor and attention when she sits in the audience, when she reads the passage, when she guiltily waves to her daughter on the beach as she is about to leave to find the evil scientist. The acting makes believable how they could even consider lying, but of course falsity, especially a big one, will come back to haunt moral men--this seems like the theme of the movie--and it does eat away at and harm them, in different ways.

The other theme I think has to do with how to deal with and confront a living, breathing horror, not a cartoon, not someone you have partisan differences with but are more alike than you care to realize, but a three-dimensional, complex monster--as you say, a remorseless devil played unforgettably. There would be no emotional power if he were insane or so efficiently cold as to be inhuman. That he is, and always has been, a person of his own faculty, and is very much cognizant of what he has done, and capable of conversation and paying attention, is the horror. His physical strength felt ingeniously dramatized. And you could see it in that scene, you know the scene. He is equally repulsive as he is dangerous and present.

Stephen Bourque said...

Well said, Jason.

The only other example of Ms. Chastain's work that I have seen is her performance in The Help, a delightful and inspiring film that I strongly recommend.