Each of us has secrets that we keep to ourselves. We know this even though we often try to avoid it. Some of these secrets haunt us profoundly. Sometimes we are able to make a semblance of peace with them over time. This is why confession is so vital to true spiritual and emotional health. The ancient traditions of Orthodoxy and Catholicism have an established means for direct confession that involve a spiritual guide who hears and responds to our sins with a word of grace. Still, many of us act as if sharing our secrets will destroy us. The truth is the exact opposite.
This reality came home to me rather powerfully as I watched the new film The Debt. Based on an acclaimed 2007 Israeli film called Ha-Hov [The Debt], this new film—directed by Oscar-winning director John Madden, is a taunt and suspenseful story that will go deep into the mind and soul of the viewer who has a conscience.
In The Debt the viewer is also powerfully reminded of the horrors of Nazi cruelty. By the end there is a deep sense of justice that cries out for finality. How can these Nazi atrocities, particularly those committed by physicians, be brought to trial?
What makes this film difficult to watch is that the unfolding of the story repeatedly jumps back and forth between time periods over a span of thirty-plus years. This presents a real problem because different actors are playing the same person and at times this makes their roles a bit conflicted cinematically. The story, however, is tight and taunt. You can eventually get over this problem if you stay with the story itself.
Here is the story. In 1966, Mossad (the Israeli secret intelligence agency) sends secret agents Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington), and Stephan (Marton Csokas) to accomplish one goal: find the (fictitious) Nazi war criminal Dr. Dieter Vogel and bring him to trial. Vogel is the infamous "Surgeon of Birkenau," who sent thousands of Jews to their deaths at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp during the Holocaust. The problem is that Vogel now lives in East Berlin and getting him out will not be easy. When the team does capture him things go bad rather quickly. The gripping and tense drama then gets amped up big time by this point in the film.
More than thirty years later (1997) Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson)—who married after their time in Berlin and now are divorced from one another—are in Tel Aviv for a celebration of the publication of their daughter's book about their experience back in 1965. But as they celebrate you have the sense that something is still powerfully amiss. David (Ciaran Hinds), the third member of their 1965 team, throws himself in front of a truck, committing suicide. It seems that the secret they have both protected for decades is soon to be revealed. In a state of shock they must face the truth of their real past and pay the debt they still owe, thus the movie title taken from the Hebrew.
I cannot compare The Debt to the original Hebrew film since I have not seen it. Some critics suggest that this remake was neither necessary nor an entirely fruitful experience. Frankly, I found The Debt riveting and provocative. The theme is one that we all must face at one time or another. What if your deepest, darkest secret(s) came back to haunt you after decades of lies? Lies can be woven into our lives in powerful ways. Few of us really thinks deeply enough about how to face the whole truth of our own story. How do we dig out the truth and move forward freely and openly? One thing is for sure—someday we must all face the truth. If we do not face the truth now then God will reveal it to us in the Final Day. The Debt is a powerful reminder of this sobering reality.