Directed by John Madden
Screenplay Matthew Vaughan, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan
from an original Israeli film written by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum, released in 2007 as Ha-Hov in Israel, and The Debt elsewhere.
Helen Mirren (Rachel), Tom Wilkinson (Stephan) & Ciaran Hinds (David), Jesper Christenson (Doktor Bernhardt / Vogel)
Jessica Chastain (young Rachel), Martin Csokas (young Stephan) and Sam Worthington (young David)
The lights went up. The audience were totally silent, as you are when you’ve been pinned to your seat for nearly two hours and shocked right through to the end. This is no feast of violence, but the three close-up violent scenes (and one of those is repeated) have the audience audibly groaning. I certainly was. While this is an espionage thriller, it’s no Die Hard or car chase feast. It’s wholly character-driven, and it is intense.
There are really three stories, and there are two time-frames … 1965/6 with the young versions of the characters, and 1997 which is “now”. (Now actually can’t be “now” anymore with movies about events from World War II.)
The stories in the two time frames are interwoven with the third story: the classic eternal triangle between the three agents. Having started the film in 1997, we flashback, but then the main 1966 story gets virtually a straight uninterrupted hour to play. The three main characters are Mossad agents, charged with capturing Nazi war criminal, Vogel, the ‘Surgeon of Brechinau,’ in East Berlin. They have subsequently become national heroes. There are clear reminders of the Eichmann case. Eichmann was a Nazi war criminal living in Argentina. Mossad observed him for a year, before capturing him in 1960, taking him back to Israel, putting him on trial, then formally executing him in 1962. This is the important point. Mossad could easily have killed surviving ex-Nazis. The real task was capturing them alive and putting them on trial for their crimes. The victims of the Holocaust deserved their fates to be known and the truth to be told. It still goes on, though now the surviving very elderly men, captured prosaically in Britain and the USA, were brutal guards and executioners rather than commanders. There can never be a statute of limitations on the holocaust. There is no hiding place. As an aside, my father was in the BBC unit that drove into Belsen, the event captured on the BBC radio recording of Richard Dimbelby. My mother told me he woke up in a cold sweat with nightmare memories right through to his premature death in 1966. So yes, in 1965, as in the film, this was all very close in time to people who experienced it. Not killing people like Vogel took enormous discipline. A point from the politics of the 60s is that the East Berlin setting though rich in character (and Trabants and other dud Ostie cars) is less likely than a West German setting. The DDR was run by the old communists who had opposed Hitler, so a less likely refuge, even if we accept that Vogel had covered his tracks well. It’s a necessary setting because they need a police state with closed borders to create the drama of getting Vogel out of the country.
1966, Rachel, David & Stefan return from their mission to become national heroes.
The plot of the film is beautifully constructed. We see Rachel (Helen Mirren) reading aloud from her daughter’s book at a publishing launch. The book is about the events of 1965 (it hinges around New Year’s Eve 1965-66), and we flashback to young Rachel (Jessica Chastain). We see a version of the last piece of the 1965 story. We know from Stefan (Tom Wilkinson in 1997) that something went badly wrong. Then we go back to see the full 1965 story. Vogel, now Doktor Bernhardt, is a gynaecologist in East Berlin, and Rachel has to undergo two examinations for infertility as they check out that he is the real one they’re after. The trailer shows how Rachel captures him, smash between her knees, during a third examination, so that’s no plot spoiler (but brilliantly executed). The Mossad plot (unlike the film plot) gets screwed up. They fail to get Vogel out, and have to hold him as a prisoner. Jesper Christiansen portrays Vogel as a true psychopath; manipulating, silver-tongued, then foully anti-Semitic and eventually extremely violent. We see what REALLY happened in 1965.
Jesper Christiansen as Vogel / Doktor Bernhardt
Rachel (Jessica Chastain) with Vogel (Jesper Christiansen) as prisoner
Then back to the present, and David is dead. Stefan’s in a wheelchair (and now high up in Mossad, or possibly government, he’s called to a cabinet meeting). There’s only Rachel (Helen Mirren) to sort out the problem. So she’s off to the Ukraine to see if an elderly psychiatric patient really is Vogel, and if so, to deal with him. No plot spoilers.
In this film, there is absolutely no issue with two actors playing Rachel Singer at different times in her life. Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren don’t look particularly alike, but their acting makes you feel seamlessly they are the same person. They’re helped by the horrific scar that Vogel has inflicted on Rachel , which the older Rachel still carries. It works just as well with Stefan and David. I thought they must have studied each other closely, but in reality, I can’t think that the two sets of actors would ever have met on the set. They share no scenes.
The film is about truth. The only reason they hadn’t simply shot Vogel in the first instance was to bring out the truth. They were forced into a lie. The answer can’t be to sort it by only killing him. The truth must out.
Rachel (Helen Mirren) and David (Ciaran Hinds) in 1997 time frame
Near the end, Helen Mirren has to leave some notes. Every caption to the photos we’ve seen in the story is in Hebrew, and we see Mirren start writing from right to left, as you would in Hebrew. When we later see the note, it appears (to me) to be in English.
Rachel, 1997 time-frame, in the Ukraine
First rate Israeli accents from the cast.