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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 upon whom the “surgeon of Birkenau” experimented.

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.