Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reel Thoughts: East Berlin Stories

History is written by the victors. That quote informs the new morality thriller The Debt, starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and breakout star Jessica Chastain (Celia Foote in The Help). Set in 1997, but mostly told in flashback in the late sixties, The Debt tells the story of a trio of Israeli Mossad agents (Chastain, Worthington and Martin Csokas) who were charged with finding and bringing to justice an infamous Nazi called the "Surgeon of Birkenau", believed to be living in East Berlin. In 1997, the three agents’ bravery in dealing with the evil sadist has brought them thirty years of acclaim, especially for Rachel (Mirren). Her daughter Sarah has even written a book about her mother’s role in killing the monster, even while she was wounded. Of course, that is the history the Israelis needed to hear, but the reality turns out to be something different, a secret the agents tightly guarded all these years.

Director John Madden made a splash with Shakespeare in Love, and The Debt is sure to draw Oscar attention next year, at least for acting. Most of the action takes place in the past, giving Chastain, Worthington and Csokas bigger roles than Mirren, Tom Wilkinson or Ciaran Hinds. The only jarring casting is that Csokas looks just like Hinds, and Worthington looks similar to Wilkinson, yet the younger men’s parts are reversed. It takes constant reminding to realize who is who in the flashbacks.

The Debt manages an exciting balance between the morality tale of tracking Dieter Vogel and how the agents struggle to treat their captive beast humanely, the growing emotional bond between Rachel and the two men, and the espionage action as the agents try to smuggle their prisoner out of Communist East Berlin without being caught or shot. The story echoes the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound and the present day mystery is reminiscent of the Pat Tillman “friendly fire” cover-up. The ending cheapens the film with a finale that was a little too Fatal Attraction for me, but it gave The Debt the big closure some audiences need.

Israel’s quest to bring the Nazi war criminals to justice is always fascinating, and The Debt is respectful of the subject matter. Wilkinson, Mirren and Hinds ground the story and give it the weight it needs. The Debt is a great, mature thriller to help say goodbye to summer and to get ready for the high prestige films of the fall.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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