Director adds zing to remake of Israeli spy thriller

The announcement that the 2007 Israeli drama “Ha-Hov” (“The Debt”) was going to be remade in English was widely welcomed, presumably because of the casting of Helen Mirren.

Certainly it wasn’t because people knew and admired the original film, which screened in just a handful of U.S. festivals — including a Jewish film festival in the East Bay in 2009.

At that time, I was turned off by the Israeli movie’s crass use of a Nazi villain to drive a pulpy suspense yarn. So I was not looking forward to a remake, even if it was being made by John Madden, the Oscar-nominated director of the Academy Award–winning “Shakespeare in Love.”

However, I underestimated Madden’s skill and integrity, for “The Debt” is a smart, beautifully crafted thriller that raises serious issues without exploiting or trivializing them.

John Madden (left) directs Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington on the set of “The Debt.” photo/focus features/laurie sparham

“[Screenwriter] Peter Straughan and I felt very, very strongly that the last thing in the world we were interested in doing was using the Holocaust and the pursuit of this [Josef] Mengele-type character as a sort of hook to hang a revenge thriller on,” the British director said in a recent interview at a San Francisco hotel. “That seemed to me to be meretricious, and the last place I wanted to go.”

Both “The Debt” and its Israeli inspiration begin in the mid-1960s with the triumphant return of a trio of young Mossad agents — played by Jessica Chastain (who plays the outcast Celia Foote in “The Help”), Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas — from a secret overseas mission. Their accomplishment was killing “the Surgeon of Birkenau,” an infamous Nazi living comfortably in East Berlin under an assumed name.

Leap forward 30 years, and the three figures — now played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds — are compelled to revisit the pivotal event that shaped their lives and careers. The bulk of “The Debt,” consequently, consists of an extended flashback in which we see the German operation in its entirety.

The thoughtful Madden, 62, whose career includes theater, radio, television and film, was diligent at the script stage, on set and in the editing room.

“My responsibility was to pay as much attention to character, and the truth of people’s behavior, rather than simply to engineer the situation where the characters collaborated with the script’s requirement for entertainment,” he explained. “It would grieve me more than anything if we were tagged with the accusation that we were hitching a ride on an appalling circumstance simply to entertain the audience.”

“The Debt” succeeds completely on that score. A surprising depiction it shares with the original film, however, is portraying some Mossad agents as stunningly inexperienced and undisciplined. For the young Rachel Singer (the character played by Chastain), it was her first time in the field.

“We think of Mossad as being a sort of ruthlessly efficient operation, but in its early years I think that this kind of operation — and indeed the one that brought [Adolf] Eichmann to justice — was quite surprisingly ad hoc and created a certain extraordinary pressure on the people involved,” Madden said.

Madden shot a chunk of “The Debt” in Israel, but on such a tight schedule that he had no time either for sightseeing or shmoozing with real-life Mossad agents. He hopes to do both when he takes the movie to the Haifa Film Festival in October.

One of Madden’s tough decisions, although it occupies just a few seconds of screen time, was having Rachel look at photographs of actual Holocaust victims. This sequence serves to make the Nazis’ crimes real rather than abstract, and also conveys Rachel’s reaction, but it required a sensitive hand.

“It’s a very tricky one,” Madden admitted. “Again, I didn’t gratuitously do that to push something down the audience’s throat. Those images are so extraordinarily charged and I certainly did not wish to play that out over any length of time. But I felt it was important to have it in the film visually, to have some evocation of that world. And particularly to watch the effect that was having on the [agent].”

For ultimately “The Debt” is about the moral responsibility and accountability of the Israelis, not the crimes of Nazis.

“The counterbalance of revenge and retribution is forgiveness,” Madden said. “Not that I’m suggesting for a second that forgiveness is appropriate necessarily in the circumstance that we’re talking about here, but the notion of truth in this film, being a crucial thing to strive for, is a very Shakespearean idea. The [agents] either walk into the light and embrace it, or they walk out into that light and deny it.”

“The Debt” opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, Aug. 31

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.