Dealing With Our Debt in The Debt by: Blaine Grimes

Posted: July 31, 2014 by jperritt in Action, Drama, Thriller

The_Debt_Poster[This post contains spoilers.]

One of the interesting (and often challenging) aspects of the espionage genre is that it often requires of the reader/viewer a certain amount of cultural/political awareness. Enter Le Carré’s world, for instance, and you need to know his particular brand of British jargon–that The Circus is actually MI6, and so forth. Still, spy films set in foreign countries find box office success with American audiences. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (an adaptation from a Le Carré novel), Skyfall, and A Most Wanted Man (another Le Carré) are some recent examples. Why are these kinds of films successful? Why do audiences keep demanding them and studios keep financing them? One reason, I contend, is that while spy films may be culturally challenging, the thematic underpinnings of the genre–trust, guilt, innocence, betrayal, loyalty, and truth–are part of a universal language that translates across national borders with great ease.[1] For instance,The Debt (2010), which is set in and is ostensibly about Israel, is really an examination of guilt, sin, and the need for absolution. It is to these themes, therefore, I now turn.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of The Debt is its time-jumping narrative. Alternating back and forth between 1997 and 1965, the film is centered around a group of Mossad agents who were tasked with capturing the notorious Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel, also known as the Surgeon of Birkeanu, and returning him to Israel to stand trial.[2] We are told that the mission failed–that Vogel was able to break out of the safe house in which he was being held and was subsequently shot and killed by Mossad agent Rachel Singer (we see these events take place in a flashback as Rachel reads a portion of her daughter’s new non-fiction book on the mission). As we are introduced to Rachel Singer and the rest of the heroic team of Mossad agents–David Peretz and Stephan Gold–in 1997, we see that years after the fact this now famous mission still weighs heavily on their minds; it has seared the consciences. The majority of The Debt, however, takes place via flashback, as the ill-fated attempt to capture the Surgeon of Birkenau slowly unfolds. Tension slowly builds as the young Mossad agents capture Vogel and bring him to the safe house. We wait for his impending escape and subsequent death. Finally, the time we both dread and anticipate arrives. Vogel, using a shard of a broken bowl, severs the ropes that bind his hands, knocks Rachel into unconsciousness, and starts to flee. We know all of this; we’ve seen it all before. We know that Singer will wake up, grab her gun, and kill Vogel just before he runs out of sight. With the shot focusing on the unconscious body of Singer, we wait for that moment. Nothing happens. Dieter Vogel escapes.

Back to 1997, where Rachel learns that Vogel has surfaced and is threatening to reveal the three agents’ decades-old lie to a reporter: Rachel must now finish the job. She must kill Vogel. This time, Rachel succeeds; but she incurs a substantial wound in the process. As she lies there bleeding, her final words–hastily written on a piece of paper and found by the reporter who was supposed to interview Vogel–are relayed in voiceover:

My name is Rachel Singer. Please publish what you are about to read. In 1965, I was part of a mission to kidnap Dieter Vogel, The Surgeon of Birkenau, and bring him to Israel to stand trial. We have always claimed that Vogel was killed, trying to escape. But this was a lie. A lie I have lived with for thirty years. And now I understand that I must tell the truth.

In a very Dostoevskyian manner, The Debt shows that the law of God, written on the human heart, has the power to assail the conscience, revealing sin.[3] This theme is most clearly visible in the character of Rachel. She is clearly and visibly tormented by her lies. Her deceitfulness haunts her. In addition, the accusatory power of Rachel’s sins are made apparent by the fact that her daughter’s book–a lifetime worth of research and labor–is founded on untruth. A tension is created thusly: Rachel desperately longs for the truth to be told–for her guilt to be assuaged, yet she fears bringing shame upon her family. Finally, she chooses to do the right thing, confessing the cover-up, telling the truth. But is her burden lifted and the guilt removed? Was it worth it? Even if she survives, we do not know the nature of the fallout with her surviving family. The implication is that a written confession to a reporter is the only satisfaction she received. This lingering note of hopelessness, is the not-so-Dostoevskyian part of The Debt. Perhaps the film is reaching down to its Jewish roots, pointing to a need for absolution and atonement in light of human depravity and the debilitating effects of sin. Debts, after all, must be paid. In the end, when you watch a movie like The Debt, you thank God that Christ’s blood, as Toplady said, saves us from sin’s guilt and power.


[1]I do not mean to imply that the cultural aspects of spy films are unworthy of consideration or are nonexistent. It’s just that this is not a cultural studies blog.

[2]Since the film moves between two points in time, the main characters are each portrayed by two actors–one old and one young. For this reason, I have chosen not to include the actor’s name in parenthesis beside the character he or she portrays.

[3]I believe it was David Powlison who made this excellent observation. However, I do not recall a source.


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