Centering on the legendary capture and killing of a fictional Nazi war criminal by a trio of young Mossad agents, “The Debt” is a sporadically intense Israeli thriller that shuttles between the mid-’60s, the time of that supposed courageous act, and the late ’90s, during which a decidedly less heroic version of events threatens to surface. The present-day intrigue, capably carried by famed Israeli diva Gila Almagor in an angst-ridden solo performance, cannot compete with flashbacked confrontations between the children of Holocaust victims and the monstrous “surgeon of Birkenau.” Miramax plans an English-language remake starring Helen Mirren.
Rachel (Almagor) makes a lecture-giving, book-writing career out of her role in the death of Max Rainer, becoming part of the official lore of the state of Israel. But a mysterious phone call, followed by an obscure newspaper article about a man claiming to be Rainer, sends her off to the Ukraine with a poison-filled syringe to silence a long-buried truth. Brief glimpses into the past hint at a cover-up.
Action then shifts to the Ukraine, where Rachel is joined in her murderous quest by fellow ex-agent Ehud (Oded Teomi), now a gunrunner. But between Ehud’s internal disintegration and the unexpected security surrounding their target, the planned assassination begins to unravel.
At this point, pic flashes back to fully land in the past, where a much younger Rachel (Neta Garty), serious, self-contained Zvi (Itay Tiran) and footloose, cynical Ehud (Yehezkel Lazrov)rehearse the abduction of their Nazi nemesis.
While director Assaf Bernstein attempts to ratchet up tension via a quasi-romantic triangle among the three Mossad agents, pic really only percolates in the faceoffs between the cold, calculating Rainer (Edgar Selge) and the Holocaust-scarred young Israelis. Script by Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum brilliantly casts Rainer as a gynecologist to whom “infertile patient” Rachel must repeatedly spread her legs as part of the planned abduction.
Once captured, Rainer plays on the underlying fears that have shaped the Israeli state (and the creation of the Mossad), claiming Jews do not know how to kill, just be killed, and that the selfish desire to save oneself doomed them from saving each other.
Pic then fast-forwards to the elder Rachel’s convoluted, last-ditch attempt to make reality conform to the myth that has defined her, the action bogging down in an overabundance of dead ends and falsely sustained suspense before the ultimate, satisfyingly bloody showdown.
Leads are excellent, particularly the two Rachels and Selge’s uber-Nazi, amply aided by Giora Bejach’s atmospheric lensing and Jonathan Bar Giora’s tense score.