Film review: Questionable ethics make minefield out of Debt

The Israeli movie “The Debt” aspires to be more than just another thriller with a sallow-cheeked Nazi villain. Raising the specter of tainted Jewish heroism and tarnished idealism, the film wants to be taken seriously as a moral parable.

But it’s a tricky assignment papering over the plot machinations of pulp fiction with high-minded philosophy. Although the film is skillfully structured and unrelentingly tense, it doesn’t quite transcend the unseemliness of generating drama by exploiting the Holocaust.

“The Debt” closes the Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival Thursday, March 5

The story begins in 1964 with three young Mossad agents returning home to national adulation after secretly assassinating the “Surgeon of Birkenau” in Germany.

The movie then jumps to 1997 and a book-signing party for Rachel Brener, the lone woman of the trio.

We’ve sensed from the opening shot of the movie that there’s a shadow over the Mossad agents, and Rachel (the imposing Israeli actress Gila Almagor) gives off an unmistakable vibe of reservations and trepidation.

Itay Tiran and Gila Almagor in “The Debt,” an Israeli thriller about three Mossad agents who capture an infamous war criminal.

Sure enough, she’s visited by one of her old accomplices with the news that there’s an elderly man in a Kiev nursing home purporting to be the Surgeon. Is he senile, a hoaxster or the real deal?

From here on, “The Debt” alternates between flashbacks to the 1964 mission and this new, unsanctioned operation that requires the middle-aged Rachel and the third original agent to pay a visit to the Ukraine. The shuttling between time periods is done with maximum effectiveness, the suspense inexorably increasing.

It only flags when the behavior of the three 20-something spies in Berlin defies plausibility. One half-expects to see a message scrolling across the screen:  “The Mossad deplores the depiction of its agents as callow and clumsy, and assures the viewer that our standards of ruthless efficiency are unmatched.”

Outside of a couple of lines of dialogue, there’s no “Munich”-style debate here about the ethics of going after a Nazi in 1964.  As for Rachel taking matters into her own hands in 1997, that has very little to do with justice or state security.

Director Assaf Bernstein, working from a script he penned with Ido Rosenblum, makes a point of portraying the full-grown, world-weary Mossad agents as visibly scarred and compromised.

One might infer that they are stand-ins for the flower of Israeli youth, wounded and corrupted by the ongoing battle for survival. Or perhaps they symbolize Israel itself, its idealism soiled by decades of dirty dealings.

Although the film’s heart lies with the Mossad agents, and Rachel in particular, the balance is tipped by Edgar Selge’s piercing portrayal of the malevolent doctor. He not only succeeds effortlessly in making us root for his comeuppance, but the German actor’s self-assurance and acting prowess make the three Israeli actors opposite him look like pishers.

The question raised by “The Debt,” albeit unintentionally, is at what point does entertainment give way to exploitation. If this were a Hollywood film, our judgment would be rather severe. Should we be more accepting because “The Debt” is an Israeli production?

As it happens, at this moment Miramax is shooting a remake of “The Debt” in London, Budapest and Tel Aviv with Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds and Jessica Chastain. When it opens next year, we’ll be able to have this conversation all over again.

“The Debt” screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Mar. 5 at the CineArts, 2314 Monument Blvd., Pleasant Hill. Tickets: $10-$11. Information: (510) 839-2900 ext. 256 or


Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.