Friday, September 16, 2011

The Debt -- truth and lies, failure and success

Director: John Madden, 2011. (R)

Hollywood remakes of foreign films often fail, forcing the new version into standard tropes that Western audiences want. The Debt, a remake of a 2007 Israeli film (from the book of the same name), refuses to do this, and seems more like a foreign thriller or a throw-back to the espionage movies of the cold-war era. In this sense, it is a gripping spy film that engages through characters and suspense, with less action than the typical film in this genre.

It opens in 1997 with two retired spies Rachel (Helen Mirren, Red) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom), coming together for the publication of their daughter’s book about their exploits thirty years earlier. Now divorced, they are the stars at the book launching party. But when the third member of their team, David (Ciaran Hinds, Margot at the Wedding), commits suicide, these two are forced to consider the debt they owe him, each other, and their country.

Flashing back to 1966, the three characters are shown when as strangers they come together in East Berlin. These three, Rachel (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington, Avatar) are undercover agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence organization. They have been sent to locate and capture Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the infamous “Surgeon of Birkenau” who performed experiments on thousands of Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in WW2. He is now living in East Germany and working as a doctor. Rachel is the bait to trap him, and they have a clever Mission Impossible-type plan to whisk him away to Israel where he will face public trial.

The film moves back and forth in time showing the stress of both situations. It is in the dingy Berlin apartment of the 60s, though, where the real tension is apparent. Wiling away the hours until the mission can be green-lit, the team are locked together in a trio of romantic interests, which themselves play into the people they become. But when the fateful day arrives, things go horribly wrong and they are forced to make a life-changing decision: do they tell the truth and show their country a failure or do they lie and appear successful. Moreover, this decision is centered in the Israeli public eye and with their choice they become venerated heroes.

The casting of the two sets of actors to play the three main characters is spot on, and all bring their A-games to the roles. Chastain shows both vulnerability as well as toughness as a rookie agent in the middle of it all. The older actors portray the cynicism and hollowness that a life of deceit brings. But Christenson may be the best as a villain who seems nothing more than an old man, but is clearly as evil as they come. His sly ability to weasel his way into the psyche of his captors communicates how he could so callously carve up and kill living beings two decades before this. He is reminiscent of the cannibal Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

The Debt makes us ponder which we would choose if we could pick truth and failure or deceit and success. Would we sell our soul for fame and fortune? Many would. These three did. But perhaps it was more than that. They did it for patriotic reasons. Regardless, such a fundamental choice lays bare our inner character. Will we compromise our integrity in this way? We need to remember what the Chroniclist says: “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity” (1 Chron. 29:17). If we seek the pleasure of God (rather than men) we will hold on to our integrity regardless of the personal cost.

Of course, the weight of peer pressure can exacerbate the pressure and force us into a decision we may regret. When the three weigh their decision, one character is clear on the decision and he brow-beats the others in turn until they agree with him. When others are pressuring us to join their position it takes a person of conviction and character to stand firm. The easy way out is to cave in. The apostle Paul speaks to this when he says to the Galatians, “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). It is the devil who is ultimately trying to persuade us to lie and sin, and Peter points this out: “Resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Pet. 5:9). It is by holding firm to the faith we have in Jesus that we can resist the devil and his temptation (Jas. 4:7).

Like 2009's The Invention of Lying, the main of the theme of the film lies in the effects of the lie. Whereas that earlier film was a comedy, this is a drama and takes seriously the implications of lying. The consequences of the deceit take a terrible toll. Over the ensuing years, the inner character of the three Israelis crumbles. David cannot face the students he lies to as he retells “the story” of their heroic act. He departs searching for a way to redeem himself. Stephan resorts to living the life of a lying politician, wearing his lies like a mask. Rachel takes to smoking rather than drink. It is inevitable that the truth will come out one way or another. And when it seems about to, it forces them to take drastic action to repay their debt.

The truth will come out. It may be in this life, when we are least ready. In such a case it may result in embarrassment, imprisonment or worse. But, as Jesus once said, the truth in this life ultimately will set us free (Jn. 8:32). We will be free from having to wear a mask and hide our inner person from our family and friends. If it does not emerge in this life and we go to the grave with our dark secret, the truth will still come out. God “sees what is done in secret” (Matt. 6:4) and he “will repay each person according to what they have done” (Rom. 2:6). We all face a judgment before the living God and he will expose these dark secrets. Better to get them out now and be free living in truth than to harbor the secrets and let them haunt us in this life and pay for them in the life to come.  

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs   

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