We keep them close, and they tear us apart. We hold them in our guts, and they eat us from the inside out. We tell ourselves we must keep them—that we have no choice. But they exact a heavy toll. And sometimes they grow too big, too monstrous for us to handle.
In a secret agent thriller that feels like it could have actually happened (but didn't; the film is a remake of a 2007 Israeli production), Stephan, David and Rachel have been keeping a secret for 30 years. In the 1960s, these Israeli spies undertook a covert operation in East Berlin, behind the Iron Curtain. Their mission: capture Dieter Vogel, a notorious Nazi war criminal known as the Surgeon of Birkenau. During World War II, Vogel performed unspeakable tests on his Jewish victims, snuffing their lives one by one in the name of Nazi science.
"I want him to be put on trial, and I want the world to watch," David tells his partners.
But something goes wrong—something the world cannot know. And, these three young agents believe, it doesn't have to. They can keep a secret. They can carry it to the grave.
Or so they think. Some secrets don't keep easy.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
As intelligence officers, Stephan, David and Rachel inherently carry more secrets than their fair share. Lying is part of the gig. And when they decide to keep this biggest of secrets, it's rationalized as simply doing what has to be done—not for themselves, but for their beloved homeland. And perhaps, in a way, they're justified in their decision: Look carefully at the revered stories of most great nations and you'll find that what we were told was not always so.
But they're lying to themselves, and they (and we) know it. And this film sets out to examine what happens when honesty is willfully subjugated—and how important the truth is in the end, regardless the cost.
Stephan, David and Rachel come home as national heroes, and as time goes on, they accumulate more and more accolades and accoutrements, some of them quite dear, that they'd lose should they come clean. Stephan and Rachel have been particularly blessed since Berlin: Stephan's now a powerful minister in the Israeli cabinet. Rachel gives popular talks about her escapades, and her daughter has even written a respected book about the mission—one in which her mother is very much a hero.
It's David who most longs to fess up. And he ultimately convinces Rachel that she (they) must come clean. Stephan tries to talk her out of it. Your daughter is so proud of you, he says.
"I want to do something to make her proud of me," she replies.
In flashbacks to East Berlin we see another ethical dilemma unfold: what to do with Vogel. The mission calls for them to somehow smuggle the war criminal out of Germany and into Israel, where a court of law can mete out mortal justice. But given the fact that each member of the team lost people close to them in the war—David lost his entire family—and that they know how truly monstrous Vogel is, they find it difficult to rein in their own desire for immediate retaliation when they nab him. Not everyone believes it would be wrong to kill Vogel without provocation. But the script takes the tack that Vogel should stand trial, not be summarily executed. To shuffle him off to Israel means, in the film's ethos, holding on to one's humanity. To wreak revenge is to step towards barbarism.
In the midst of this muddy moral landscape, we see characters try to do the right thing, try to follow their consciences. David refuses to leave Rachel behind at a critical juncture in the mission—even though that act of kindness helps to botch the whole thing. Rachel tends to a beaten, bloodied Vogel with a certain aura of compassion. Back home, she longs to run away with her "true" love, but elects to stay with her husband for the sake of their young daughter.
These spies are Jewish. But it's only toward the end of the film that we see an indication that at least Stephan and Rachel have any faith in God. "I knew we would be punished," Rachel says, evoking the idea that God must be exacting justice for their lie. Stephan says that he thought God already had punished him. Rachel looks at the wheelchair he's sitting in and says, "God doesn't plant car bombs." But Stephan dismisses the tethers of his chair and implies that he's instead speaking of the way a post-mission love went so very wrong.
Rachel and Stephan flirt and ultimately have sex. We see them kiss passionately. And then in the next scene, Stephan's in bed, shirtless, while Rachel puts on her clothes. Torn between the two men, Rachel also kisses David while Stephan's out.
To get to Vogel, who is now a gynecologist, Rachel masquerades as a patient. And the camera watches as she undergoes three lengthy examinations in his office. There's never any explicit nudity; we see instead Vogel's clinical movements and Rachel's anguished face and tense body from other angles. But the overall effect of these appointments feels horribly intimate and invasive—almost to the point of being akin to, in Rachel's mind, clinical rape. We watch as she undresses and puts on a hospital gown.
Elsewhere, a couple has sex in a newspaper newsroom. (In near darkness, we see partial disrobing and hear heavy breathing and sexual movements.) Rachel walks around in a towel after a bath. Stephan half-jokingly questions whether David is heterosexual.
A man commits suicide by walking in front of a speeding truck. And the camera doesn't duck away on impact like we're used to it doing in movies. Instead we see him hit the grill before graphically rolling underneath the tires. Vogel is beaten while tied up in the agents' Berlin apartment. In a battle with Rachel, Vogel slices open her face, throws her headlong into a heating grill and kicks and stomps her head. (A critical scene in the film, we see it twice.)
Rachel captures Vogel in his clinic by grasping him around the neck with her legs and stabbing him in the neck with a hypodermic needle. She uses another hypo later in life, this time full of a lethal cocktail. The trio gets involved in a gunfight with East German guards. (We learn later that one of the guards was killed.) Someone is stabbed in the chest and gut with surgical scissors. (Blood wells up in the wound and dribbles on the floor.) Someone else is stabbed in the leg. Grappling, hitting and shoving are part and parcel with the hand-to-hand combat.
Rachel looks at sickening photographs of Vogel's World War II handiwork. An innocent man is nearly killed in a case of mistaken identity. For a time, Vogel appears to want to die at the hands of his captors. And Stephan covers the man's face with a sack—endangering his life. ("We are not animals!" David says by way of reprimand.)
Crude or Profane Language
A baker's dozen of f-words, one s-word and five or six misuses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Most characters smoke cigarettes, and several drink wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages, sometimes at a bar. Rachel gulps down some whiskey before hooking up with Stephan. As mentioned, drugs are used as weapons.
Other Negative Elements
After seeing cockroaches in the kitchen sink in Berlin, Rachel runs to the bathroom and vomits (a sign of morning sickness, Vogel tells her). We hear Vogel taunting his captors with racist rants ("You Jews don't know how to live. Only to die"). He tells David that the Jewish people "deserved" to be exterminated because he never saw any of them stand up to the guards who led them to the gas chambers. To fend off the man's verbal volleys, Stephan cautions Rachel with these (equally ugly) words: "He isn't there. He isn't a human being."
"I'm not brave," Rachel tells David at the beginning of the Berlin operation. "I'm terrified."
"But you're doing it anyway, because you know how important it is," David says.
David could've again said the same thing to Rachel three decades later as she comes to grips with the secret she's kept hidden for so long. She's terrified of telling the truth. She knows it'll mean shame and degradation. And what could it do to her relationship with her daughter, who just published a book about how heroic her mother was?
But she does it anyway. A lifetime of lies has shown her how precious the truth is.
The Debt is rated R for several reasons. The language is harsh. The violence can be graphic. And it's extraordinarily uncomfortable to watch Rachel and Vogel square off across a set of examination stirrups.
The Debt, like its protagonists, operates in a world of gray, where black and white, right and wrong aren't readily realized. Stephan, David and Rachel don't always make, or even want to make, the right decisions … setting the stage for a thoughtful, often deeply ethical rumination on some age-old commandments: You shouldn't kill. You shouldn't covet. You shouldn't lie.
Because while they may mightily struggle, there's never any doubt about what they should do. We understand their compulsion to keep the secret. We also understand that eventually they're not just telling a lie, they're living one. And the truth must be told. The Debt confronts us with that.