“The Debt” (2010 production, 2011 release). Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen, Romi Aboulafia, Brigitte Kren, István Göz, Morris Perry. Director: John Madden. Screenplay: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, based on the film “Ha-Hov,” written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum. www.focusfeatures.com/the_debt/
Living a life of integrity is something that we all strive for (or so one would hope). Going about our affairs in an authentic manner, one that’s true to our inner nature, results in a life of satisfaction and fulfillment, not to mention a clear conscience. But achieving such an existence can be challenging, especially if the circumstances we draw to ourselves present hurdles that make attaining that kind of life problematic. Such is the dilemma faced by a trio of quietly anguished protagonists in the new espionage thriller, “The Debt.”
In 1997 Israel, three operatives of the country’s intelligence agency, Massod, are hailed as national heroes when a book is published chronicling their triumphant accomplishments on a secret mission to East Berlin 31 years earlier. On the surface, one would think that agents Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds) would be honored by such recognition, especially since the book was written by Rachel and Stephan’s beamingly proud daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia). But, during what should be a time of celebration, unexplained tensions simmer ominously just beneath the surface. One might be tempted to chalk things up to the strained relations between the now-divorced parents of the book’s author, but there’s clearly more to it than that—as becomes painfully apparent when David inexplicably commits suicide by stepping into the path of an oncoming truck.
Rachel, long retired from Massod, and Stephan, now a high-ranking Israeli government official, launch an investigation (albeit somewhat reluctantly) into David’s seemingly unexplained behavior. And it’s not long before they acknowledge that the answers are rooted in the past, stemming back to their 1966 mission in East Berlin, an assignment that changed their lives forever.
The East Berlin mission focused on capturing Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi scientist known as “the Surgeon of Birkenau,” who engaged in an array of horrific medical experiments on concentration camp subjects during World War II. Having managed to escape arrest after the war, Vogel faded from view, adopting the surname Bernhardt. He blended into Soviet-dominated East German society, with its pervasive paranoiac, know-nothing culture, quietly operating an obstetrics/gynecology clinic with his wife (Brigitte Kren). The agents’ objective was to clandestinely abduct their target and deliver him to Israeli authorities to stand trial as a war criminal.
To shed light on the agents’ assignment, the film re-creates the events of 1966 featuring Rachel, Stephan and David as their younger selves (Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington, respectively). As the mission unfolds, everything goes according to plan, at least initially. But, when events take an unexpected turn, the agents are forced to improvise, testing the limits of their training and ingenuity. They seek a variety of solutions, all of which fall through in one way or another, requiring ever more inventiveness to keep matters under control. Over time, increasingly desperate measures are implemented, culminating in a crisis point that has wide-ranging implications for the agents, their captive and their nation’s reputation. Their solution places a heavy burden on all concerned, creating an unbearable weight that’s ready to come crashing down three decades later—that is, unless a new way out can be found in the wake of what happened so long ago.
In the end, the solutions that resolve the outstanding issues in this story, just like those that satisfactorily settle the open questions in the real-life sagas of virtually every human being on the planet, ultimately rest on the principle of integrity. Being authentic with and about oneself, no matter what spiritual, philosophical or metaphysical doctrine one follows, is crucial for addressing the challenges in our lives, for failing to do so is essentially the equivalent of lying to ourselves (and, by extension, to others). Behaving insincerely inevitably sends us down tangential paths and blind alleys that invariably take us further away from, rather than closer to, achieving our desired goals. It gives rise to undue stress and frustration, necessitating corrective measures that could likely be avoided if integrity were unquestionably allowed to take its rightful place as the prevailing principle guiding us in our lives.
The value of avoiding fruitless exercises in self-deception should be particularly apparent to practitioners of conscious creation. Those who adhere to its concepts inherently know that what we reap in our lives ultimately stems from the seeds of intent we sow through our thoughts and beliefs. The more readily we own up to that, the better off we’ll be, for conscious acknowledgment of, and active engagement in, the need to truly be ourselves is integral to leading a life of genuine fulfillment (one can even see that from the words in question, with “integrity” and “integral” having a common root source).
The question of integrity undeniably looms large in the lives of this film’s characters (and, no doubt, in the minds of its viewers), not only for what they do and don’t do, but also in terms of what they, arguably, should or shouldn’t do. This applies both to specific actions related to the picture’s story line and in the larger ethical context of what behaviors one would deem morally acceptable and unacceptable.
For instance, should we always engage in behaviors for which we believe we are “justified”? Are there times when “corrective” measures aren’t as curative as they might initially seem? Will the execution of certain actions indeed make things “right,” or is their implementation merely an emotional, knee-jerk reaction to circumstances that, in the end, does little more than perpetuate a cycle that might be better resolved by other decisions and actions? There are no easy answers in any of this, particularly since conscious creation principles recognize that all options for the expression of physical reality are inherently equally valid (even if some are more preferable than others). However, by raising these questions, either directly or by implication, the film gives us much to think about, especially with regard to matters of integrity and whether we’re truly being as authentic with ourselves as we could be.
On balance, “The Debt” is a riveting thriller, even if the re-created back story goes on a little too long. The writing is crisp, insightful, intense and highly emotional at times, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself occasionally squirming in your theater seat or clawing at the armrest. The cast is terrific, too; Mirren is once again at the top of her game (don’t be surprised to see some award nominations come out of this performance), as are nearly all of her co-stars, particularly Chastain, Worthington and Christensen. This one is sure to leave you with a lot on your mind by the time it’s all over.
Socrates was said to have remarked that “the unexplored life is not worth living.” After seeing this picture, one could easily say the same about a life lived without integrity. It’s heartening that we have reminders as powerful as this film to keep us cognizant of something that we dare not overlook.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.