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“Schindler’s Fist”

Film Review: “The Debt” (2011)

Grade: B (RENT IT)

“Terribly and terrifyingly normal.”  That was Hannah Arendt’s memorable description, from 1963, after seeing Adolf Eichmann, one of the evil architects of the Holocaust and only Nazi to be executed on Israeli ground after the war, stand trial for crimes against humanity.  It was exactly Eichmann’s bourgeois normalness that terrified Arendt the most.  Even the most destructive of men, she realized, can look like, well, Joe the Plumber.

Every bit the Nazi monster, Eichmann was also a pencil-pusher and a bureaucrat, and as Arendt would argue, in her controversial “Report on the Banality of Evil” from Eichmann in Jerusalem, all the more dangerous because he himself could be pushed around.  In the end, he was a mere “organization man” whose unthinking compliance made the deportation and deaths of millions as easy as the flip of a switch.  “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him,” Arendt observed, “and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

That banality of evil, as Arendt would famously phrase it, is what gives the many face-to-face confrontations between Mossad special agent, Rachel Singer, and Nazi monster, Dieter Vogel, their thrilling charge in John Madden’s “The Debt” (a reboot of a 2007 Israeli thriller adapted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Godlman and Peter Straughan).  Their tense scenes together involve straight razors, needles, even speculums and they’ll make you want to look away.   The wicked Dr. Vogel (played by Jesper Christensen) is best (or worst) known as the sadistic Surgeon of Birkenau, and he’s been hiding in plain sight in an East Berlin gynecology practice since the fall of the Third Reich.  He has a pleasant looking wife, also his nurse, and he appears, on the surface, well, normal.   Incognito as Dr. Vogel’s timid patient, Rachel exchanges pleasant chitchat with the good doctor as she prepares, with the help of her two fellow agents, to forcibly apprehend the fugitive and bring him to justice.

The young Rachel is played by Jessica Chastain, surely 2011’s greatest revelation on screen.  She was ethereal as the virtually mute mother in Terrence Malick’s superb “The Tree of Life,” effervescent in “The Help,” and here, in “The Debt,” she’s every bit as forceful and effective as the third corner in a triangle of operatives consisting of Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington of “Avatar” and “Terminator Salvation”).  The film occupies several points on the same timeline all at once.   Juxtaposed with the kidnapping of Vogel in 1965 Berlin is modern-day Tel Aviv where Rachel, thirty years later, is now famous for shooting Vogel dead and making her people proud.

But did she?  Is her version of Vogel’s killing truthful, or could the Nazi doctor have fled and Rachel, and Stephan, and David’s account of events be a fabrication?   A terrific trio of actors plays the agents at middle-age (Helen Mirren as Rachel, Tom Wilkinson as Stephan and Ciaran Hinds as David).  They’re still busy trying to rewrite history, and since this reviewer is no spoiler, all I will say is that this triangle, young and old, has more than a few lies to protect.  What powers “The Debt” is the same Hitler-directed revenge fantasy that powered two modern-day classics: 1976’s “The Marathon Man” and Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” of 2009.

Hanah Arendt and the banality of evil is surely a useful lens through which “The Debt” should be viewed.  More accessible perhaps is someone a bit closer to (cinematic) home, that is, Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr., PhD who, in his “Last Crusade” of 1989, has the last word when he says with a sigh: “Nazis.  I hate these guys.”