Owed: One good movie

If you've ever wanted to see Gila Almagor play a cold-blooded hit woman, here's your chance, but none of the distinguished actors in The Debt does his or her best work in this film.

gila almagor 88 224 (photo credit: )
gila almagor 88 224
(photo credit: )
THE DEBT * Directed by Assaf Bernstein. Written by Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum. Hebrew title: 'Ha Hov.' 93 minutes. In Hebrew, Russian, German, and English, with Hebrew titles. With Gila Almagor, Neta Garty, Itay Turan, Yehezkel Lazarov, Edgar Selge, Alex Peleg, Oded Teomi Mossad agents, it turns out, are the most sensitive, tormented souls in the world. I know, because I've seen several movies about them in recent years. Steven Spielberg's Munich, Eytan Fox's Walk on Water, and now Assaf Bernstein's The Debt all feature Mossad operatives as the main characters, and no one is as afflicted by self-doubt, conflict and the quest for moral purity. If you saw just these films, you'd never guess that the previous stereotype of Mossad agents was as cold-blooded killers. In fact, the one thing they seem very bad at is killing; you'd be better off hiring a garden-variety gangster from The Sopranos. No, these guys and gals are the ones you should call for philosophical discussions and long-winded arguments. If you'd like to see an entertaining movie, though, you'd better look for one about another profession. The Debt tells the story of three Mossad agents assigned to find and capture a Nazi known as "The Surgeon of Birkenau." This Nazi monster, Max Rainer (Edgar Selge) is living in Berlin in the Sixties and working as an OB-GYN. Mossad agent Rachel Brenner (Neta Garty) poses as a patient in order to trap him, in a tasteless scene that simply presents this Nazi as no creepier than the average male gynecologist. Then she and her colleagues Zvi (Itay Turan) and Ehud (Yehezkel Lazarov) hustle him off to their safe house, where they guard him for days and engage in long discussions on morality with him and each other while waiting for orders. He turns out, in the old-movie tradition of villainy, to be far more polite, articulate and thoughtful than his captors, but things don't go as planned, and although the agents are lionized as heroes on their return and coast on their reputations for the rest of their lives, they all carry a terrible secret. I don't want to give away too much of the plot (although the filmmakers chose to reveal a great deal more of it in the program for the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer, where the film was first shown), because slight suspense is the only thing that will carry you through this not-very-credible story. Suffice it to say that it probably isn't the best idea to let someone who weighs about 80 pounds (Garty, by the look of her) guard a ruthless war criminal alone. In any case, the film alternates between the capture of the Nazi in the Sixties and the present day, when he resurfaces in Europe, ready to talk about his crimes and expose the lie that the Mossad agents have been dining out on all these years. Present-day Rachel Brenner (now played by Gila Almagor), Zvi (Alex Peleg) and Ehud (Oded Teomi) conclude that they've got to kill him this time to preserve their reputations. If you've ever wanted to see Gila Almagor play a cold-blooded hit woman, here's your chance, but none of these distinguished actors does his or her best work here. The standout, not surprisingly, is Edgar Selge as the Nazi. He gets most of the good lines, and is convincing as someone with a monstrous past who nevertheless functions as a caring physician. The more you think about the implications of the plot, though, the more unpleasant it is. The story isn't particularly compelling on its own, so it must be a metaphor, but for what? That Israelis are at war, struggling with their impulses to take revenge and show mercy, or that since Jews were victimized during the Holocaust, we now must exaggerate our heroism? The real take-home message here, one that all frequent moviegoers should already know, is: Never turn your back on a Nazi. By now, I doubt anyone really needs The Debt to remind them of that.