Reel Lessons

Reel Lessons: The Debt

How an Israeli hit squad that needs to finish off a job from the past is a lot like Greece.
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Helen Mirren, haunted by the "Surgeon of Birkenau" in The Debt
<div style="text-align: left;"> Helen Mirren, haunted by the "Surgeon of Birkenau" in The Debt </div>

So this is some gritty thriller about vampire squids, fictional statistics and exploding bond yields?
Not exactly. It is actually about a secret Israeli hit squad that travels to East Berlin in the 1960s to capture a Nazi war criminal, known as the Surgeon of Birkenau. Things go awry and decisions are made that come back to haunt the team 30 years later.

Sounds like the latest EU summit. So who owes who what, and is it collateralised?
Exactly. The mission goes wrong and (spoiler alert), the Nazi escapes. However, the hit squad (two men and one woman) decide to pretend they succeeded: the Nazi would go to ground anyway and would be unlikely to pipe up and say: “Hello everyone! I’m still here.” The hit squad feel they owe it to Israel and her security to appear as if they succeeded.

So this debt has been securitised?
Very clever. Yes, it is all about Israel’s sense of security and coming to terms with its past. This justifies their fiction. But it takes a terrible toll on the trio whose lives are changed by the escapade. The squad leader (played by Tom Wilkinson) goes on to high office within the Israeli security establishment, but in the process is paralysed by a bomb and is now confined to a wheelchair. The Sam Worthington/Ciaran Hinds character goes mad, disappears and then kills himself.

And the lone female played by Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren — loses all sense of purpose and is filled with self-hatred.

So they are trapped by the excessive debt they owe to the state? Are you sure this is not about Greece?
The irony at the centre of the film is that they believed that saying they killed the Nazi would condemn him to a life of fear and “constantly watching over his shoulder”. But actually it is the hit squad that spends the rest of their lives waiting for someone to call them out.

Presumably that happens right?
Indeed. With shifting time scenes, the second part of the film shows how they try and repay the debt, when it becomes clear that the Surgeon has resurfaced 30 years after their failed snatch and grab.

So that’s a bit like a 30-year bullet mortgage payment you had hoped the bank had forgotten?
Well yes, bullets do and don’t come into it. It is up to Helen Mirren to save the day again. But the question that is left hanging is whether it is better to fess up, or not.

A dilemma familiar to many heavily in debt.
The tension at the heart of the film, especially during the scenes where they are trying to work out what to do with the Nazi, would be familiar to many an over exposed debtor The ending too, is as taut and tight as a 10-year German bund. Directed by John Madden, this film is excellent.

John Madden as in the American Football legend?
No, as in the director of Captain Correlli’s Mandolin.

Ah, and is that about Greece?

This article first appeared in the December/January issue of FinanceAsia magazine


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