by director John Madden
It is 1965. A trio of highly motivated, ideologically driven young operatives of Israel’s formidable intelligence organization, the Mossad, is engaged on a mission to capture and bring to trial a suspected Nazi war criminal, who is thought to be hiding under an assumed name in Soviet-occupied East Berlin. Acutely aware of the debt the young country owes to the six million whose suffering they have sworn never to forget, the three strive both to accomplish their task, and to remember their purpose in pursuing it: to shine a light on the mentality of those responsible for such evil, so that the world might understand it and be better able to ensure that it never happens again.
Except that it doesn’t work out that way.
"Debt" is a loaded word these days, a dark word, and that fact has given rise to discussions about the film’s title, and the possible desirability of changing it, for fear that an audience would shy away from its associations. Beyond its immediate fiscal meaning, a debt is a burden; something from which we cannot escape, something that must be repaid or atoned for. It’s possible to say that we live our lives conscious at some level that our happiness or peace of mind may be being bought at the expense of others: an uncomfortable feeling, but perhaps a necessary one. It reminds us of our responsibilities, of what we owe to those with whom we share the world, to those who went before us and to those who will follow. This film explores some of these ideas; it begins in darkness—the natural environment for a thriller—but gradually it finds its way into the light.
The Debt is an adaptation of a 2007 Israeli film called Ha-Hov (The Debt), directed by Assaf Bernstein. I point this out because I have great respect for the original screenplay on which this film is based. On a more level playing field, Ha-Hov might have been seen by a wider audience, and perhaps there would have been no reason for our film to exist. But the story is a powerful one; the emotions it engenders are so strong, and the issues that it raises so challenging, that it seemed to merit putting aside the qualms I might have felt interpreting the work of another filmmaker.
The Debt is a thriller, that most exacting of cinematic forms, the holy grail of genres for a director, whose skills must be deployed carefully and ruthlessly. A thriller that lets an audience get ahead of it, or allows the tension to relax unintentionally, will not easily be forgiven. But a director must also play fair with the audience. The characters should not be made to "cooperate" with the script, but must behave according to the truth of their situation. Though set in the mid-‘60s and the mid-‘90s, the story of The Debt takes place in the long shadow of the Holocaust, an event whose enormity the world is still trying to come to terms with. Approaching this subject imposes responsibilities on the director and writer: not to appropriate the graveness of the circumstance to lend weight to a narrative, and not to trivialize monstrous suffering for the purposes of entertainment. The story is about the urge for justice, about moral accountability, about the need for heroes, and about human fragility—powerful themes that nevertheless seemed to want to be told in the form of a thriller, a genre perhaps more associated with escapism than seriousness. And yet—unapologetically—I hoped to make a film that would entertain, to provide a visceral experience that would pick you up and not let you down until the final credits. I also hoped to make one that would provoke thought and self-examination, one that might linger in the mind a little longer than when you leave the car park.
The film also comes at its subject in an unusual way. Its three protagonists, pursuing their prey on a mission that takes them into the very heart of darkness, are seen in retrospect by the same three characters 30 years later, played by three different actors. The fabric of their lives is woven through a gripping narrative, the mosaic gradually aligning to form a picture illuminating all that has gone before. Working from a brilliant script, I was able to attract a formidable cast: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds as the three operatives in their later lives; and, respectively, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington as their younger selves. As the object of their pursuit, we have the extraordinary Jesper Christensen.
For a director, the opportunity to make a film that addresses the heart, the mind, and the guts simultaneously was a challenge I was unwilling to forego. I relished the chance to emulate films that I admired and grew up with in the 1970s, stories whose emotional, psychological, and moral complexity were a necessary part of the way the narrative unfolded. Cinema is to a degree about sensation, or at least immersion; it seeks to place an audience in the middle of an experience, and can deploy ever more formidable weapons to achieve this. And yet perhaps what makes a film memorable in the end are not these trappings, but the human experiences it depicts, and its success in involving us in the characters who inhabit it.
I found this film as involving and challenging as any I have made, and in the year that has passed waiting for its release—while a studio realignment played itself out—I have had the chance to contemplate the film from a distance, and find, though I know it inside out, that I am still surprised by it. I hope it involves you as well, and surprises you.