When Hannah Arendt wrote of “the banality of evil,” she could have been referring to an elderly gynecologist played by Jesper Christensen in The Debt, a new John Madden-directed remake of a 2007 Israeli film. From all outside appearances, Christensen is nothing but a harmless old man. There’s even something reassuringly paternalistic and kindly in his bearing. But underneath the avuncular façade lie hints of unimaginable darkness that reveal his true history as an infamous Nazi butcher. There’s something monstrous, even terrifying, in Christensen’s seeming normality.
Helen Mirren stars as a retired Mossad agent legendary for her hunt for Christensen. Her daughter has written a book chronicling her heroism, but at a party for said tome, Mirren wears a tight-lipped grimace that betrays a profound ambivalence about her hero status. The film then flashes back decades as Mirren’s younger self (Tree Of Life’s formidable Jessica Chastain) trains diligently for her Nazi-hunting mission in Germany alongside fellow agents Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas. The intensity and importance of the mission bring the trio together, pushing them inexorably toward a love triangle.
The Debt’s most riveting scenes find Chastain, who becomes one of Christensen’s patients to get closer to him, lying on his gynecologist’s table, vulnerable and prone. The power imbalance is amplified by Chastain’s status as bait and the furtive nature of her visits to Christensen. These scenes are defined by an almost unbearable tension that at its best recalls a similar war of wills in the bravura opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds. After capturing Christensen, Chastain is forced to acknowledge his humanity and vice versa. The sexually and culturally charged relationship between Chastain and Christensen—first as patient and doctor, then as captor and captive—is so compelling that it makes the love triangle look all the more arbitrary by comparison. Madden’s dark, moody, complex exploration of guilt and identity taps into a rich vein of moral ambiguity, but the filmmakers should know that in the face of unspeakable Nazi evil, the romantic problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans.