The new Hollywood thriller, The Debt, is another exercise in one of tinseltown’s favorite themes – moral relativism. In this film, a group of three Israeli agents, infiltrated into East Berlin in the mid 1960s in order to capture a notorious Nazi concentration camp butcher, lie to the world for 30 years about the outcome of their inglorious adventure. Torn by guilt to various degrees (from none to overwhelming), they bask in undeserved glory for a lifetime until, in the mid 1990s, the specter of their horrible secret being revealed leads to a desperate attempt to cover up their moral misbehavior.
The movie is very well done. The acting is superb, the sets are graphic and seemingly authentic, the dialog crisp and the action scenes – at which Hollywood is so expert – are taut and exciting. The seamless weave of past and present is extremely clever. The moral quandary in which the agents find themselves when their extraction plans go awry is starkly drawn, compelling to contemplate and completely believable. Oh there is much in the movie that is not believable: the small size of the Israeli team; the aging Nazi butcher overpowering the female agent even though earlier in the film she is shown outdueling her fellow male agents in hand-to-hand combat; the same Nazi butcher, now 90-something, winning a strenuous knife fight; and the despicable narcissism of one of the male agents – now elderly and crippled – portrayed as an unspecified member of the Israeli cabinet, perhaps even the Prime Minister, plotting to silence the other agents when their moral consciences are about to burst after 30 years.
Overall though, from the point of view of entertainment, the film certainly delivers. What about the message? It is – as is often true of Hollywood exercises in relativism – ambiguous and uncertain. The Nazi butcher is portrayed as inherently evil, but at the same time he expresses concern for his devoted and innocent wife who will be devastated by his disappearance. The female Israeli agent – 30 years later – although increasingly troubled by her lie, is conflicted by the fact that her daughter’s life has been successfully constructed on the basis of that lie. And of course, the agents themselves, confronted by monstrous evil and the opportunity to help heal some of the wounds inflicted by that evil – alas, only at the cost of moral dishonor – spend their lives tormented by what should have been – and still can be – the right choice.