The Debt

Assaf Bernstein’s The Debt (2007) portrays the breakdown of accountability during a fictional operation by Israel’s Mossad agency to capture a Nazi war criminal.

The film opens with the Mossad team of Rachel Brenner (Gila Almagor, Neta Garty), Zvi and Ehud arriving home triumphantly in April 1965: a scene reminiscent of Beatles mania.  Flashforward 30 years later and Rachel explains to Israeli intelligence trainees what it was like to kill the Nazi war criminal Maximilian Rainer (Edgar Selge) in a safehouse shootout: ‘I didn’t think of anything, I just closed my eyes, thought of my mother and what she had been through.’  The trainees joke about the Surgeon of Burkenau as a symbol of evil.

At a launch party for her memoir My Mission we hear an account of Rachel’s bravery and see her signing books like a celebrity.  As the party ends Zvi arrives with a newspaper story that will shatter the bubble: an old man in a nursing home 40 minutes outside of the Ukrainian industrial city Kiev now claims to be Rainer.  Rachel, Zvi and Ehud all know the truth that has been hidden for 30 years: Rainer escaped from the safehouse and they created the cover-story to hide the truth about the Surgeon of Burkenau’s fate that would have shocked Israel. 

The team is being reactived before Mossad and the Israeli public find out the truth.  Ehud is already in Kiev whilst Zvi cannot go due to wounds from an Israeli embassy bombing 10 years earlier.  Zvi convinces Rachel to go to Kiev armed with poison to confirm Rainer’s identity and to kill him.  She is unsure about the newspaper photograph.  ‘People change a lot in 30 years’, Zvi tells her.  ‘We were different then, weren’t we?’, Rachel wonders.

The Debt‘s narrative cuts back and forth between the 1964 Berlin operation and Rachel’s 1994 visit to Kiev.  Bernstein thus creates a cause-effect relationship between the team’s initial decisions and their consequences.

Mossad tracks Rainer to Berlin in 1964 after a 15-year search.  The night before the team’s operation begins Rachel examines photographs of Rainer’s atrocities in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Rainer now works as a gynecologist so Rachel poses as Mrs. Roget and gets several appointments for an infertility examination.  These scenes have a starkness similar to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) as Rainer attempts to discover Rachel’s true identity.  Eventually the team resorts to an extraction operation: Rachel injects Rainer with a serum whilst Zvi and Ehud arrive with a fake ambulance.

Holed up in a safehouse with Rainer imprisoned the team begins to fall apart.  The cover operation to use an embassy party is delayed several times.  The team starts infighting over their motives: Rachel has unrequited love for Zvi, Ehud’s tough personal masks his fears and Zvi is hauned by the deaths of his entire family at Auschwitz.

Rainer emotionally manipulates Rachel and Ehud when they break Zvi’s rule not to speak to their prisoner.  He offers several rationalisations: his work was done for ‘scientific progress’, ‘hundreds of deaths’ were necessary to save millions, and that ‘we could do anything we wanted with the Jews’.  Rachel taunts Rainer that he will endure a public trial similar to Adolf Eichmann
in Jerusalem in 1961.  Rainer explains to Rachel and Ehud that only four guards were needed to send entire families to their deaths: Jewish ‘egoists’ meant that individuals only thought for themselves.  ‘Jews only knew how to die, they didn’t know how to kill,’ Rainer concludes.  The exchanges are a misdirection ploy: with Ehud and Zvi now out of the room Rainer attacks the sleeping Rachel with a razor that she has dropped and escapes.  ‘It took 15 years to find him, we aren’t going to find him in 10 minutes,’ Ehud and Zvi argue.  The truth that happened in Berlin is not the truth that Israel must know.

30 years later Zvi, Ehud and Rachel are each haunted by their lie.  When Rachel arrives in Kiev she meets Ehud who is now an arms dealer to both sides in Sierra Leone: ‘rebel against them’ he explains over a double malt whiskey.  Ehud and Rachel are unable to get into the Kiev nursing home which is a high security facility for former Soviet military.  The next morning Rachel discovers that Ehud has committed suicide because he is a coward.  Zvi asks her to return but Rachel wants to finish what should have been done in Berlin.

After several cat-and-mouse attempts Rachel disguises herself as a nurse to infiltrate the nursing home.  She sees the old man on a balcony.  A Berliner Zeitung reporter also wants to interview the old man and phones his editor in advance to claim a double-spread cover story.  In these scenes Rachel seems cautious to conduct a field operation, unsure of the old man’s true identity and out-of-place in a life after espionage.  Both she and the reporter discover the truth: the old man has Alzheimers and started the story a month ago to the concern of his son.  The reporter leaves in disgust.

Only then does Rachel discover the deeper truth underneath the surface truth and by accident:  she follows the old man’s grandson and his remote controlled car to discover an elderly Rainer playing cards in the dining room.  ‘I should never have confessed to him,’ he tells Rachel, ‘I should have taken this secret to my grave.’  Rachel and Rainer’s bathroom knife fight leave both fatall wounded, and Rachel dies on a train platform, remembering the team’s triumphant return to Israel, the black and white news footage now in colour.

The Debt explores the ethical challenges of intelligence fieldwork, coming face to face with ontological evil, and the cost of living with a lie.  However two other dimensions are only hinted at.  The team’s lie is necessary to maintain Mossad’s invincibility and as a counter-myth against the Nazi postwar survival myths of Adolf Hitler, Martin Bormann and the Odessa in South America.  More cryptic is Rainer’s explanation to Rachel about World War II’s intergenerational trauma: ‘The war changed a lot of people.’