The Dr. of Birkenau, the real-life Nazi soldier that The Debt revolves around, is alleged to have been the father of the abortion and to have performed a rainbow of horrid medical experiments on prisoners such as testing tolerances to the point of death and killing and inspecting twins, a particular interest of his. On one occasion, he is reported to have overseen a sewing-together of Romani twin children, leading to their death by gangrene (and this is likely the inspiration of the movie The Human Centipede, a horror in which an evil German doctor sews together humans, anus to mouth); and, in conspiracy theories, it is this man who pioneered slaving and mind control methods by way of tortuous methods (see the Monarch Project) . Meet Dr. Josef Mengele, the “angel of death,” or, Dr. Dieter Vogel in The Debt.
The story of The Debt steps between the present day and the mid 60s, slowly bringing together the two and dispelling the mystery of why their reportedly successful mission to capture Dr. Vogel has led to, many years later, David’s gruesome suicide and a guilt-ridden Rachel. The team’s mission is to snag the evil Dr. Vogel from East Berlin to stand trial in Israel, and the audience is held in stressful suspense at every stage of this attempt. An early sample of such tension is when Dr. Vogel hovers over the spread legs of Rachel (Jessica Chastain) for a gynecological examination, with which your skin crawls knowing this killer has his fingers inside the young (and beautiful) protagonist’s vagina. This same feeling of invasion is then continued later when Dr. Vogel invades and unravels Rachel’s mind.
The important question for The Debt, however, is how – if at all – does it contribute to that hackneyed narrative of revenge against the evil Nazi(s)? There is now a cartoonish development of the Nazi character in movies, and is this one any different? Whatever the movie loses by being built on such an overdone theme, it does save ground by providing many talking points and some subtleties: one such subtlety is the question of how does one avoid becoming the kind of monster that one sets out to stop? In other words, Rachel and David confront the terror that they too want to kill this man just as this man wanted to, and did, kill many at the Birkenau concentration camp. In one captivating scene, Dr. Vogel chides Rachel, pointing out that should she bring him to a farcical court in Israel that will decide on his death, isn’t his blood on her hands? She may as well kill him now, he says, as she holds a shaving switch-blade to his throat. She wants to, but can’t, and is morally torn. This moral anxiety wracks Dr. Vogel’s captors.
A second subtlety is the movie’s attention to truth versus the accepted narrative. In the present day, Rachel’s daughter has written a book on her mother’s heroic act that, we later find out, is untrue. Literally, the written word, the book, is a false narrative made up by her mother for political reasons. Still another source of anxiety in Rachel and David is their continued maintenance of their false story, their living a lie. Rachel is torn between the truth and needing to maintain a beneficial lie for her daughter and for Israel. Stephan, now a politician, tells Rachel that “truth is a luxury.” Deepening this point even further is the fact that when Rachel does decide to tell the truth of what happened with the pursuit of Dr. Vogel, the truth changes (the pursuit unexpectedly continues). So, there is never a time when the narrative and the truth are the same; they always differ. This is “the debt” between the narrative and the real.
Ultimately, although the viewer knows what the true story in the movie is and what is made up, the point of narrative versus factuality points to the flexibility of history, or merely what we are told, say, in the news, versus what is actually happening. This is found everywhere, including in how Israel readily cites its victimary history to justify its continuing crimes of aggression. This is history used as a political tool.
With excellent performances from Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas, and especially Jesper Christensen (who plays Dr. Vogel chillingly) and for providing many talking points such as these, The Debt is worth the watch.