Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Original Debt

Rachel Berner knows the ugly side of human nature. She has just finished a book tour, but it is the events covered in her memoir that brought her face to face with evil. Berner was part of a three agent Mossad team charged with capturing “The Surgeon of Birkenau,” a National Socialist war criminal clearly modeled on Mengele. Though they were supposedly forced to kill the doctor when he attempted to escape, they became national heroes for ultimately bringing the Surgeon to justice. However, we quickly discover there is something wrong with that official story in Assaf Bernstein’s The Debt (trailer here), which is now available on IFC’s Festival Direct and is being remade by John “Shakespeare in Love” Madden.

Berner has become a national icon in Israel, a veritable living Hannah Senesh. Yet, when mysterious reports surface of a senile patient in a Ukrainian nursing home claiming to be the notorious Surgeon, Max Rainer, she and her two colleagues take it deadly seriously. The straight-laced Zvi, for whom Berner once carried a torch, is now a wheelchair-bound senior intelligence official, so he will remain in Israel. She will rendezvous in Ukraine with the rakish Ehud, her consolation prize on that fateful mission, to secretly finish the job. As they case the sanatorium, a high security facility catering to old soviet military and intelligence officers (a place where Rainer evidently feels quite at ease), Bernstein flashes back to 1964, showing how it all went down.

The film certainly faults Berner and company for the problematic execution of their mission, but it never suggests they had the wrong man. Indeed, Rainer, played by Edgar Selge with icy menace, is stone-cold evil incarnate. As a result, Berner has a real karmic obligation to find the Surgeon and fulfill his premature obituaries.

The Debt is a well constructed thriller-morality play, but its scenes in 1964 pack the most punch. Though shot entirely in contemporary color, Giora Bejach’s gauzy cinematography gives it a fittingly period noir feel. Bernstein’s dynamic temporal transitions are also appealingly reminiscent of old fashioned movie suspensers. While the verbal sparring between the captors and the creepy prisoner is hardly new cinematic ground, Bernstein adds some intriguing wrinkles. As children of the Holocaust, it seems the Mossad trio might be more susceptible to Rainer’s prodding than the Nazis hunters of their parents’ generation, who had survived the horrors and therefore might be more immune to the taunts of their quarry.

In a shrewd bit of recasting, Helen Mirren is slated to play the older, memory-haunted Berner, taking over for Gila Almagor, a grand dame of Israeli Cinema. Sam “hit-me-with-a-stick-to-see-if-my-facial-expression-changes” Worthington is also attached, presumably for the role of young Zvi. Oddly though, both Ehuds (Oded Teomi the elder and Yehezkel Lazarov the younger) tend to steal their scenes in either timeframe, so good luck recasting them. In fact, one wonders how effective the new version will be without the sensibilities brought to the original film by its Israeli cast and crew.

Debt is a small but intense tragic-thriller that should find increased demand as the Madden version gears up for release. It is worth checking out. For now, IFC has strangely forgone theatrical distribution in favor of their on-demand program, despite its success on the festival circuit. Here in the City, it is also available for viewing at the Israel Film Center at the Manhattan JCC, but advance reservations are required.