It takes more than subtitles to translate a movie. Films such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and practically Michael Haneke's entire oeuvre, for example, are entertaining in their own right. But their deeper meaning often flows from the cultural vein of their native audiences: Dragon Tattoo reflected its creator's dark vision of Swedish misogyny, while Haneke's Caché draws on the dark past between France and Algeria.
The conundrum becomes magnified when these movies are remade by nonnative filmmakers. The Debt is an American remake of the 2007 Israeli drama-thriller HaHov, which concerns the particularly fraught world of Nazi hunting. Following the war, Israeli intelligence services and private citizens such as Simon Wiesenthal pursued Hitler's former minions, an enterprise that was not without controversy both inside and outside Israel.
The Debt is set in 1997, when three retired Mossad agents—Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), ex-hubby Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciarán Hinds) must confront the truth behind their incursion inside East Berlin 30 years earlier. Their mission was to locate and apprehend a former Nazi named Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), whose moniker "the Surgeon of Birkenau" clearly models him on Josef Mengele.
The bulk of The Debt, directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), comprises a series of long flashback scenes set at the time of the operation and its aftermath. The exercise to capture and sneak Vogel out of East Germany plays like a taut procedural, particularly a sequence at a rail station in which their plan goes awry. This disruption forces the agents to stow Vogel in their safe house for weeks while they search for an alternate escape route, events that mirror the actual 1960 abduction of Adolf Eichmann by Mossad agents in Argentina. Madden excels in cultivating an espionage-thriller vibe during these sequences that nonetheless hamstrings the present-day scenes by draining them of any philosophical subtext.
The most screen time is dedicated to Rachel, whose later book about the trio's exploits would earn them notoriety. Still, the way the character is written is a muddle: Young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) possesses the mettles to submit to Vogel's gynecological exams, yet she's so needy that, even in the middle of this delicate mission, she drunkenly and arbitrarily throws herself at both of her male co-workers on the same night, forming a haphazard love triangle that informs the story without really improving it.
Even so, the 30-year-old Chastain, last seen in The Help and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, acquits herself quite well. On the other hand, most of the other actors, particularly Mirren, Wilkinson and Sam Worthington (who plays young David), fret and frown. And Hinds doesn't have time to even do that, appearing only once after his character throws himself in front of a passing truck in the film's opening scene.
The Debt's most intriguing characters are two of its secondary ones. Stephan (the younger version portrayed by Marton Csokas) portrays an intriguing clash of sniveling self-interest and earnest patriotism. And the way Vogel deciphers and exploits his captors' psychological vulnerabilities is Lecter-esque: even though Vogel is bound and gagged, he's the one who is truly in control.
Unfortunately, the screenwriting team of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) fails to pivot The Debt from its sheer suspense elements into a film possessing any discernable political, cultural or emotional nuance. It culminates with a journey to Ukraine by Mirren's Rachel and a finale more befitting one of Brian De Palma's campy climaxes. Apparently certain types of cinema are universal, after all.