While Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa is joyous in his “Inglourious Basterds” brutality, Christensen’s evil Dr. Dieter Vogel of “The Debt” uses insidious psychological sadism to worm his way inside the minds of his righteous young abductors. Either way, both bad guys steal the show when on their respective screens. Which, in Christensen’s case, is no mean feat since he’s up against a slew of such heavy hitting co-stars as Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and hot newcomer Jessica Chastain (“The Help”).
Directed by John Madden (the lightweight “Shakespeare in Love”), “The Debt” is based on a 2007 Israeli film, “Ha-Hov,” and is deadly serious in its pursuit of accountability for the truth behind a tragically false action of three Mossad Nazi hunters.
The story swings back and forth between 1966 and 1997, but manages to maintain suspense and curb confusion. The scenes from the ’60s involve the novice spy trio, Rachel Singer (Chastain), David Peretz (Sam Worthington), and Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), blowing an attempt to kidnap Josef Mengele-type “Surgeon of Birkenau” Vogel as he’s functioning under an assumed name as an East Berlin gynecologist.
In several breathtaking sequences, der Doktor gains intense intimacy with Rachel, who submits to fertility examinations. Later, when he’s held captive in a Berlin apartment, his knowledge of Rachel works wonders on wearing her down. Vogel is also a whiz at getting David’s goat, by enraging him with anti-Semitic rants. And, his awareness of the romantic triangle forming within the trio doesn’t help.
Thirty years later, Rachel (Mirren) is reveling in the glory of a bestseller by her daughter, depicting her as the Israeli heroine who “killed” the notorious surgeon in mid-escape. “The Debt” may have been better served with the title, “The Lie,” because that’s what the three former Mossad agents are laboring under.
In fact, senior David (Ciarán Hinds) commits suicide and crippled Stephan (Wilkinson) convinces Rachel to find and finish off Vogel, who has surfaced in a Ukrainian mental hospital.
“The Debt” is a top-notch exercise in tension, heightened by powerful acting and a Nazi we’d all love to kill. And, it sends a clear message: By lying about the end of evil, you let it live.