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August 31, 2011

My review of The Debt, the movie about the “surgeon of Birkenau”

I previously blogged about the movie  entitled The Debt and wrote (facetiously) that it will win Academy Awards because it is a Holocaust movie.  After seeing the movie today, I think that it will be nominated for several Academy awards — because it is a great movie.  This film is a remake of a 2007 Israeli film, also named The Debt.

I was not expecting to like this movie, but after seeing it, I am giving it high praise.  It is being advertised as a “spy thriller” but it is much more than that.  The story line is about Truth and whether telling lies can sometimes be justified.

Some memorable lines in the movie are

“We have to lie.”  “The Truth stays in this room.”  “Truth is a luxury.”

And regarding the necessity to lie: “The important thing is Justice.”

I doubt that this movie will win the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year because the story line is hard to follow, unless you have some advance knowledge of the plot.  If you prefer to see movies without any idea of what the plot is about, don’t read any further.

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

The movie starts in the year 1997 with an event in Tel Aviv, Israel honoring Sarah Gold, the daughter of a Mossad operative, who has just published a book about the exploits of her mother who participated in the capture of a German war criminal named Dieter Vogel in Berlin in 1965. The author of the book begins to read a passage from the book about how her mother, Rachel Singer, shot Dieter Vogel when he attempted to escape, on New Year’s Eve, from the apartment where he was being held. As she reads, the movie switches to a flashback about the events that happened in Berlin in 1965.

Rachel Singer is played by Helen Mirren in the 1997 scenes.  In earlier scenes, taking place in the Eastern section of Berlin in 1965, Rachel Singer is played by Jessica Chastain who is sensitive and charming in contrast to her older self, as played by Helen Mirren.  (Helen Mirren will definitely be nominated for an Academy Award and will probably win.)  Other critics have pointed out that the younger Rachel and the older Rachel do not seem to be the same person.  But the sensitive Rachel is a big factor in the plot, so I think that the contrast is deliberate.

The fictional German war criminal Dieter Vogel is called “the surgeon of Birkenau” in the film; there are many indications that his character is based on the real life Dr. Josef Mengele, just as I suspected when I wrote two earlier posts about The Debt.  In the movie, one of the crimes of Dieter Vogel is claimed to be experiments, done on changing the color of eyes, which caused many “blind children.”  This definitely identifies him as Dr. Josef Mengele who allegedly conducted experiments to change brown eyes to blue at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I give the makers of this movie extra points for not using the name Mengele and for using an innocuous name like Dieter Vogel instead.  I also give the actors good marks for speaking German in a way that Americans can understand if they have had a class in German.  I could easily follow the German dialogue without looking at the translation at the bottom of the screen.  To their credit, the characters pronounce the word Birkenau correctly.

In the first flashback, Dieter Vogel is a prisoner in an apartment in Berlin in 1965.  The three Mossad agents who have captured him are taking turns guarding him, while he is bound and his mouth is taped shut.  Vogel gets loose and all of a sudden he comes up behind Rachel, attacks her and slashes her in the face, leaving a huge scar which she carries for the rest of her life.  She grabs a pistol on the floor and crawls to the head of the stairs where she kills Dieter Vogel with one shot in the back.  What a brave woman! Who would have thought that a sensitive woman like the young Rachel could kill a man!

But did an Israeli Mossad operative really kill a man without giving him the benefit of a trial to determine if he had really killed thousands of Jews?  No, of course not. The movie makes a big point of telling the audience that the plan was to capture Vogel and take him to Israel where he would stand trial.  In real life, Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped and taken to Israel for trial. That was also the plan for Dieter Vogel. One of the two male Mossad agents in the movie says something about wanting the world “to know the truth” and that is why they were planning to take him to Israel for trial.

In later scenes, we learn why Dieter Vogel was being held as a prisoner in the apartment in Berlin.  It is because the plan, to sneak him out of East Berlin and take him to Israel for trial, was a failure.  Now he is in the apartment and he has to be taken care of, while the 3 Mossad agents try to figure out what to do with him. One of the agents says something about the need to put him on trial “to show the world what he did.”

Later, the same scene, in which Vogel is killed while attempting to escape, is played again.  The audience is waiting for the shot in the back, but this time Vogel makes it safely out the door and escapes.  This creates a big dilemma.  What to do?  Should the Mossad agents admit that Vogel is still on the loose, or should they lie and say that he was shot while attempting to escape?

“Nobody needs to know.”  “No one will ever find him again.”  “We have to lie.”  “It makes no difference (whether he escaped or was shot.) “The truth stays in this room.”

Then in 1997, shortly after Sarah Gold’s book comes out, an old man in a nursing home in Ukraine, who is near death, claims that he is Dieter Vogel.  If this story gets in the papers, it will destroy Sarah Gold, who has just written a book about her mother shooting Dieter Vogel in the back in 1965.  Someone must now track Vogel down and kill him before the story gets in the newspapers. A journalist is already hot on the trail.

Rachel has been taking credit for killing Vogel for 30 years.  She is the one who must now actually kill him. She owes “The Debt” because she took credit for something that she didn’t do.  Now she must pay that Debt by killing Dieter Vogel. The older Rachel is up to the task, unlike the younger Rachel, who wimped out.

Will Rachel find Vogel in time and kill him before the story hits the papers?  Or is the old man in the nursing home, who claims to be Vogel, just some old man who has lost his mind?

You will have to see the movie to find out how it ends.

P.S. Very early in the movie, a number of photographs are shown.  I recognized one of them as the photo shown below.

Left to right: Kaltenbrunner, Ziereis, Himmler, Karl Chielewski

The photo above was taken outside the Mauthausen camp, and it has nothing to do with the “surgeon of Birkenau.”  Other than this, I did not notice anything else that was out of place in the movie.  Everything is authentic, as far as I could tell.  Even the refrigerator in the Berlin apartment, which is a very small size, just like I remember Germany in those days.

Update Sept. 3, 2011 

I have just seen the original version of The Debt, which was made in Israel in 2007; it was on TV.  The original movie has some good points, but it is clearly a movie that would not have appealed to American audiences.  The original movie shows the hatred of the Jews for the Germans, and vice-versa, in a way that the new version does not.

In the original film, the characters speak Hebrew when they are speaking to each other in Berlin, but in the new film, they speak German.  There is a scene in the original version where Dr. Vogel begs one of the Mossad agents to kill him.  The Mossad agent then describes in great detail how Dr. Vogel will be put on trial in Israel. He will be put into a bullet proof glass cage during the trial, and no matter what he says in his defense, he will be convicted and hanged.  In other words, they are planning a repeat of the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

In the original version, the train scene where the plan to sneak the doctor out of East Berlin fails, is not included. The 2007 Israeli version is not as dramatic, but in a way, it is better because it is more emotional and not as glitzy as the new version.  One of the memorable lines in the 2007 version is “The truth is anything we want it to be.”

The photo below was shown in the 2007 version. In the movie, this is supposed to be a photo of the children that the “surgeon of Birkenau” experimented on.

Still shot from Soviet film after the liberation of Birkenau

When I visited Auschwitz, I learned that this photo was from a film made by the Soviet liberators of Auschwitz and it actually shows Gypsy children, suffering from an illness called Noma, who were in the camp hospital when Auschwitz was liberated.

Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoess wrote in his autobiography, published under the title Death Dealer, that many of the Gypsy children suffered from an illness called “Noma,” which reminded him of leprosy.  These children were being treated for Noma in the camp hospital.  When Dr. Mengele first came to Birkenau, he was assigned to be the doctor for the Gypsy prisoners.


26 Comments »

  1. It is obvious here in these comments that none of the commentors are old enough to have lived during the time of the Nazi arocities during the 2nd world war. Time has a way of making history of evil seem less evil. So it is now after all these years – as is evident in the naive writings of the present commentors. Maybe it is good that people now do not have to carry the memory of the true horror of the 1940′s that the Nazi regeme carried out to millions of people from all walks of life. But for those of us who lived through that era, the memory still tears our hearts. I am 77 years old & remember too much. To you younger people, be thankful you do not know of which you speak.

    Comment by frank gottman — October 6, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

  2. hmmm….to me it really looked like everyone was acting as hard as they could, but strangely everyone had wierdly generic accents which didn’t sound like any nationality at all. Sam Worthington really lives off his good looks alone nothing much else going on there in the way of invisible acting, oh except that thing of trying to act as hard as he possibly can.

    Comment by esther may — June 7, 2012 @ 4:52 am

  3. I am de muslim and we will wreck ur country!

    Comment by muzzie man — April 21, 2012 @ 6:08 am

  4. I am watching the movie now and bewildered by all the vitriol, is there anyway you lot can disagree without name-calling?an idiot or a Muslim? Wow didn’t any of you know anything about discourse? Jeezus

    Comment by Steven r jones-Boston — March 28, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

  5. great movie, and have to be taken as a document…
    I’m not a Jews and have nothing to do with all the characters of the movie, I just enjoyed it.
    What sucks is the comments I’m reading here..
    Furtherglory, are you a Muslim? Or just a plain idiot?

    Coming back to the movie, it’s obvious we’re dealing with Dr. Mengele.

    Really a nice movie,a source of information and a search for the truth for the smart and curios ones..

    Obviously not for Muslims and leftist “denial” about every thing

    Comment by albert'o — January 8, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  6. As usual, the movie paints the picture of the horrible crimes commited by Nazi Germany and the suffering of the Jews. If Dr.Vogel was supposed to be Dr. Mengele in real life, then I must ask why nobody talks about the fact that Mengele had the help of two jewish doctors assisting him in Birkenau with his evil work.

    Comment by Marlo — December 10, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

  7. Hello there, simply was aware of your blog via Google, and located that it is truly informative. I?m going to be careful for brussels. I?ll appreciate if you happen to continue this in future. A lot of folks will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

    Comment by купоны на скидки — November 11, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  8. Seriously, It’s a fictional movie everyone get a grip yeah. Fictional (as all fiction has a basis on elements of truth from somewhere, but fiction all the same, hence “Vogel” not Mengele FICTICIOUS CHARACTER THAT DISPLAYS ” SOME BASIC ELEMENTS” OF A COINCIDENTAL HISTORICAL FIGURE ) !!!!!! Not a reason to get into a big hoo haa as usual over the whole WWII period!!!!

    Comment by ??????? — October 1, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

  9. The Debt provides for good discussion. ty for the aforementioned comments & links. (Yours too, gvkeitz!) I especially like the three-fold ending as each agent is forced to deal with THE truth, again. I took a few minutes after the show to process each one. Odd to see a movie where tragedy prevails, yet tears are amiss. I could not attach personal feelings toward any agent. Wow factor on the realistic settings, but nil dialogue made to related world events. I would have slipped a line about Eli Cohen. But then, I am always looking for more. I hope to see the 2007 Israeli version.

    Comment by teacher951 — September 20, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

  10. Wow Stevieb, maybe you should take your meds before posting.

    Comment by gvkeitz — September 18, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

  11. ‘The Debt’ should have been made about the Mossad role in the attacks on 9.11 and how the Zionist heirarchy in Israel and America went all out to push Americans into supporting Israel’s theft of Palestinian land through Islamaphobic propaganda.

    This movie will still grant Israel a degree of legitimacy that it absolutely does not deserve. It needs to be disbanded, Now.

    Comment by stevieb — September 9, 2011 @ 7:10 am

  12. i saw the film The debt yesterday and wondered all through it why they called him Vogel when I was certain it was mengeles the story was about. as soon as i arrived home i went on line to find the answer. the film was really quite violent,the acting was superb, someone above states helen mirren should get the academy award, can’t see why, the man who played vogel was the one who created the most emotion in me, only my opinion.
    if anyone out there has never had a chance to see/read QB7, take the time as it still resonates through my mind 30 years after seeing/reading Leon Uris. a remake f the original movie would be stupendous.

    suzanne

    Comment by suzanne mcevoy — September 5, 2011 @ 5:01 am

    • The reason that the man is called Vogel, and not Mengele, is because the movie is fictional. Dr. Mengele was not actually hunted down by the Mossad, but the story in the movie is based on a doctor who worked at Birkenau. The Debt is a remake of a 2007 Israeli movie. In the original movie, the actor who played the doctor was much better, in my opinion. Helen Mirren was much better than the original actress who played her part. I have not read QB VII or seen the TV series, but as I understand it, this story was also based on a doctor at Auschwitz.

      The reason that Dr. Mengele was so well remembered by the survivors of Auschwitz is because of his good looks and charm. There were many SS men at Auschwitz-Birkenau but none of them stood out like Dr. Mengele. That’s why his name was associated with so many of the atrocity stories told about Birkenau.

      Comment by furtherglory — September 5, 2011 @ 6:13 am

  13. Great review, but you completely mislead about the younger Rachel with this sentence: “The older Rachel is up to the task, unlike the younger Rachel who wimped out”. She didn’t “wimp out”, she never woke up from being knocked out/passed out from her injuries when Vogel escaped. I think your incorrect statement changes the strength of her character.

    I do agree with your summary of the theme of the movie and thought it was fantastic!

    Comment by SRF — September 2, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    • You are right. “wimped out” was the wrong term. However, in the early scenes of the movie, the Mossad agents are shown practicing martial arts so that they would be prepared to handle any kind of an attack. She had been trained to handle a surprise attack. The older Rachel was a lot tougher and could possibly have handled the attack better so that Vogel would not have escaped.

      Comment by furtherglory — September 3, 2011 @ 6:23 am

  14. I noticed that the Wiki link to Steiner’s book The Portage of to San Cristobal of A.H. mysteriously went nowhere after I posted it. However, there IS quite a lengthy Wikipedia entry for the book and it’s controversial history at the link I provided. Try this: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:CmV5WIuK9FoJ:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Portage_to_San_Cristobal_of_A.H.+the+portage+of+ah+to+san+cristobal&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us
    Reader’s reviews at Amazon.com are always good, too, for getting a sense of what a book is about and how well it’s written. Steiner’s fictional account of Hitler defending himself at a kangaroo court in a South American jungle as he awaits transport to Tel Aviv for trial is a fascinating philosophical read. Of course, it will never be made into a Holocaust horse opera because he defends himself too well. Author George Steiner is Jewish and he was labeled an anti-Semite for writing the book. Jews are bad news when it comes to freedom of historical inquiry and freedom of speech. The future of America is lurking in the past of the Soviet Union.

    Comment by who+dares+wings — September 2, 2011 @ 8:30 am

  15. I’m waiting for some wag to make a movie of George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal to A.H. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Portage_to_San_Cristobal_of_A.H.

    I’m not up on all the new screen stars so I don’t know who should play Hitler. I don’t think there is anyone in Hollywood who exudes as much moral authority as Morgan Freeman, but if there was that would be the actor I’d pick to play him. I didn’t like Bruno Ganz’ spastic performance in Downfall. Maybe Dick Van Dyke….http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=834_1213666070

    Comment by who+dares+wings — September 1, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    • I didn’t find anything on the first link that you gave, but I did find lots of information at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Hitler_in_popular_culture

      Hitler was the number one target to be completely trashed by the haters of the German people. This was the same thing that happened to Dr. Mengele and to Adolf Eichmann. Yet if you say that the Jews control the media or Hollywood, you will be labeled an anti-Semite.

      Comment by furtherglory — September 1, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  16. So this movie The Debt is essentially a celebration of Jewish revenge with it’s plot about a botched extrajudicial kidnapping by the Mossad and the need for these two women to murder Doctor Vogel before what? Before news gets out that the Mossad, operating outside Israel
    with impunity, didn’t really assassinate their man during an escape attempt? Was Sarah’s Key, the movie about the Jews getting rounded up in Vichy France, playing simultaneously in another theater at your Cineplex? If so, how did you ever choose which Holocaust movie to go see that day?

    Holocaust movies are Hollywood’s new Westerns. The cowboys always prevailed over the savage Indians and the evil Nazis are always outsmarted and ultimately trumped by the moral, intellectual and spiritual superiority of their abject but resourceful Jewish victims. Why don’t we see as many movies about perfervid Communists? You know, Laverenity Beria up to his ankles in blood in the basement of the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Or Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, high on methamphetamine, Pernod and the serial seduction of their young sycophants, roistering along the Left Bank in post-war Paris. Well, at least Hollywood Nazis aren’t wearing monocles, carrying whips and trying to restrain their hellhounds anymore. I guess that’s technical achievement enough for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to bestow an Oscar or two on this riveting Holocaust horse opera. Two (broken by intrepid Mossad interrogators) thumbs up.

    Comment by who+dares+wings — August 31, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    • No, the movie is about 3 Mossad agents, operating outside Israel with impunity, who botch an extrajudicial kidnapping, after which Dr. Vogel escapes, but they don’t want to admit that they failed in their attempt to bring Dr. Vogel to justice, so they lie about the fact that he escaped. There is only one woman who was involved in the Mossad capture of Dr. Vogel and he escaped on her watch. She lied about his escape and took credit for Jewish revenge which didn’t actually happen. She was regarded as a hero for 30 years. Then her daughter wrote a book about the story that her mother told, not realizing that it was a big fat lie. Now Dr. Vogel must be killed before the news gets out that a Mossad agent lied about getting Jewish revenge when this didn’t actually happen. If he is not killed in time, the whole world will find out that the Mossad failed and that they lied. If the whole world finds out that Jews lie, this will be a disaster.

      The theme of the movie, as I understand it, is that sometimes it is O.K. to lie if you do it to make people believe that Justice was done. Wouldn’t you be happy if you thought that Dr. Mengele was shot while trying to escape (which is a euphemism for murder) instead of drowning in the ocean after having a stroke?

      Comment by furtherglory — August 31, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

      • “The theme of the movie, as I understand it, is that sometimes it is O.K. to lie if you do it to make people believe that justice was done.”

        furtherglory, you are an idiot and completely missed the point of the move. The theme is the exact opposite of what you understood. The movie is about the conflict between truth and lying, that the lie is a burden and costs, and that ultimately the truth will set you free, hence David commits suicide because he wanted the truth to come out and the lady finally admits the truth to the reporter.

        Comment by jalex — November 30, 2011 @ 1:52 am

    • There are some really good lines in the script of the movie. Such as what one of the Mossad men says to Dr. Vogel (the Mengele character) “You’re not a human being.” Later in another scene, a Mossad man says, regarding the Mossad agents, “We’re not animals.”

      Several days after he was captured, Dr. Vogel began to taunt his captors. He says things like “Why was it so easy to exterminate the Jews?” He then explains that the Jews in the death camps were “only thinking of themselves” and did not organize a resistance movement to stop the killing. That’s not quite correct. The Jews did organize to blow up Krema IV, one of the gas chambers, in an attempt to stop the gassing of the Jews at Birkenau.

      Comment by furtherglory — September 1, 2011 @ 8:00 am

      • further glory, I really like you but you are definitely addicted to entertainment. I’ll bet I wouldn’t like this movie much because I would *disapprove* of it. That doesn’t bother you at all. I think about all the hundreds of thousands who will watch it and won’t *get* the irony that you enjoy so much. They will just believe that it represents morality.

        I can’t quite fit this ironic streak in you with your love of Glenn Beck. Which is the real further glory?

        Comment by Skeptic — September 2, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

        • You are right: I am addicted to “entertainment.” I have been a big movie fan since childhood when I used to go to the movies twice a week. Back then, there were no ratings and every movie was a G movie that children could watch. This is a good movie because the acting is excellent, the plot is great, and it is a “thriller” which literally keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is a fictional movie, loosely based on a real person. Most people won’t know that and they will not be critical of the historical aspects of the plot.

          I liked the Glenn Beck show because he introduced the public to a lot of information that was new to most people, including me. I used to watch him when he was on another network before he started his show on the Fox network. He was very entertaining back then, and when he started his new show, I was amazed at his knowledge, especially because he is completely self-taught. Without having college professors to guide him on the correct way to think, he formed his own opinions. That’s what got him into trouble. Students from a local college where I live told me that they were told by their teachers not to watch Glenn Beck. Glenn was not following the accepted thinking of cultural Marxism. I am surprised that his show lasted as long as it did.

          Comment by furtherglory — September 3, 2011 @ 6:19 am

        • I would “disapprove” of the movie if it were a documentary or if it were advertised as a true story. The movie is not purported to be a true story and it is only because of one word (Birkenau) that there is any connection to true events. In the movie, the former “surgeon of Birkenau” is hiding out in East Berlin when the movie starts. Would a former doctor at a concentration camp go to the Communist half of Germany, for any reason, much less to hide out? NO! The alleged “war criminals” who escaped went to places where there were other Germans in hiding, such as Egypt and Argentina. They did not go to Communist East Germany.

          Last night on The Factor on the Fox channel, Bill O’Reilly mentioned Dr. Mengele. Bill has a quiz on his show as one of the regular features. The quiz usually has a theme and last night, it was questions about “villains” from countries around the world. One of the questions was “Which actor played the part of Dr. Mengele in the movie, The Boys from Brazil?” In the lead up to the question, O’Reilly explained who Dr. Mengele was; he said that Dr. Mengele had committed “DOCUMENTED” atrocities. What he didn’t say is that Dr. Mengele documented his research, but the documents are now kept in a vault in Israel and will never see the light of day. The question that he should have asked is “When will Dr. Mengele’s documents be released to the public? A. Never. B. When pigs fly. C. When Hell freezes over.

          Comment by furtherglory — September 3, 2011 @ 6:53 am

          • I just saw the movie today. Very entertaining and well done.

            Comment by maxrommel — September 4, 2011 @ 3:24 pm


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