The Debt (2011)


I’d recommend seeing this odd movie for the performance of Jesper Christensen, a Danish actor acclaimed there but largely unknown to American moviegoers. He plays a character named Dieter Vogel who most obviously is modeled on Josef Mengele. Clive James, the superb Australian essayist (Cultural Amnesia), insists that Laurence Olivier is a very much overrated actor, and until I saw The Debt  I couldn’t fathom the lonely iconoclast James here: but Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man looks like overdone acting in comparison to Christensen’s Dieter Vogel/Josef Mengele.  And in The Debt Christensen has comparatively little material of his own with which to work.

We’ve all seen monster movies. This is truly one, in a few unforgettable and subtly rendered scenes dominated by Christensen. Knowing it is Mengele (Vogel) you are trying to lure with considerable personal risk…Christensen makes you understand what that would have felt like. It’s a sense that seems mandatory if most disturbingly indelible.

In sum: in the hugely fictional The Debt: Three Mossad agents are dispatched to East Germany in the 1960s to kidnap Vogel/Mengele, finally spotted, who is now a gynecologist and posing as an ordinary citizen; and he’s a hider (in all senses) unchanged in his heart. Two men and a woman comprise the Mossad team. One of the agents lost his family in the Holocaust. The two male agents fall for the female agent (naturally). She poses as the so-far infertile wife of one of the male agents and becomes Vogel’s patient. And… well…. No spoilers here, so: suffice to say: The best laid plans of mice and men…. Plus: neither a borrower nor a lender be…you might have to repay an old and most serious debt. The older you get, the harder that repayment might be.

In essence, there are two movies here. One is a pretty standard and, in parts, very entertaining thriller (e.g., some wonderful sets of shabby locales behind the Iron Curtain, maybe the best I’ve seen in the movies), a movie along the lines of a very serious heist movie, very serious because we are planning to kidnap one of the worst monsters of the twentieth century, bring him to the courtroom where Eichmann was tried, and educate the averse world on the breadth of human anthropology. The challenge for Christensen is that in keeping with the problem the Holocaust Museum confronts–history swallows up that which we must never forget, a problem reflected in the inadequate script of The Debt–he has to pull off an acting masterpiece even to feint a true tour of Hell and its devils (or beasts). The more you know about Mengele (which probably will be far more than the scriptwriters and director were willing to remind you of), the more you’ll appreciate Christensen’s unforgettable performance which is given in but a few scenes allotted to him in the midst of all manner of predictable Hollywood script cliches: the scripture according to the lion in the MGM circle. For a reason I wish I couldn’t understand, somebody(ies) decided simply to show the barest glimpses of Mengele’s horrible savagery; audiences under thirty (or unfortunately perhaps even under forty), may draw a blank. The female agent glances in deep shock at a few old photos of SS officers and atrocious death-camp scenes and lingers a split second longer than on any other photograph on that notorious group shot of the dying, infected Gipsy kids in the “experimental medical” clinic at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Vogel is called “The Surgeon of Birkenau”; Mengele was called “The Angel of Death of Auschwitz.” Although in the real history Mengele had two jobs at Auschwitz and enjoyed them both immensely–the second was to rotate with two other SS officers throughout the week to stand decisively on the train-terminal platform and send each wretched arriving passenger who had stumbled and tumbled from the doors of the arriving prisoner trains either to the right or the left, either to terminal slave labor or immediately to the chambers–very little of the monstrous evil is mentioned–there is no scene in which the Mossad agents are given any background–but (and to suggest his acting brilliance) Christensen alludes to that prisoner-selection role by an utterly masterful baiting of one of the Mossad agents: “…only four guards were required to herd a thousand to the chambers….” I’ll otherwise leave that exchange for you to experience; it is crucial in this film.

Helen Mirren, who is excellent (as are Jessica Chastain and Tom Wilkinson), may well get awards for her performance. Christensen? I’d be very surprised.

This is an odd movie in several senses, as I think you’ll see should you watch it; but perhaps the oddest thing is that although Vogel = Mengele,  the actual history of Mengele, especially his years of successful hiding after the war, have, as they say, been treated with a great deal of liberty. Have we come to the point where the reality is of almost no importance and we’ll glance askance at it as we weave thrillers?

Maybe we got there long before now, way, way back in the twentieth century, long ago and far away.