Of the Nazis who got away, the one who most insistently haunts Jewish pop culture is Josef Mengele, the SS physician who performed monstrous experiments on inmates (many of them children) at Auschwitz and Birkenau and escaped (with the help of the organization known as ODESSA) to Brazil and later Paraguay, where he died at the age of 71. The myth of Mengele-at-large — and the fantasy in which he gets his agonizing comeuppance — is central to Jewish-penned paranoid thrillers like Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil (in which Mengele is busy trying to clone der Fuhrer), and the bad doctor is surely the model for the extraterrestrial in Cowboys & Aliens that performs gruesome experiments on earthlings. Mengele even makes a surprise appearance in Annie Jacobsen’s allegedly nonfiction book Area 51 as the scientist who, at the behest of Stalin, surgically altered children to look like Martians and thereby trigger a War of the Worlds–like panic. (Well, it’s original.)
The Mengele-at-large myth turns up in more complicated form in the new thriller The Debt, a remake of an Israeli film in which the doctor is used to explore/exploit the way Jews tend to live and re-live the capture of Nazis in their fantasies. Here the Mengele figure is called Dieter Vogel and played by Jesper Christensen as a Hannibal Lecter–like evil genius who can instantly read Jews’ minds and press the exact buttons to make them irrational with hurt and rage. The three Mossad agents (one woman, two men) assigned to capture him in 1965 in East Berlin and smuggle him back to Israel for a public trial have lost loved ones to the Nazis and other enemies of their country, but they tackle their Mission: Impossible–like stratagem with military efficiency — at first. In no time, it’s apparent that Vogel’s will to live is diabolical, and that even the mighty Mossad is overmatched.
The Debt begins in 1997, in Tel Aviv, where Rachel (Helen Mirren), the agent who allegedly brought Vogel down, is one of her country’s heroes and newly celebrated in a book by her daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia). At a publishing ceremony, Rachel, her cheek conspicuously scarred, is asked to read aloud the chapter in which she and Vogel have their final, bloody confrontation — a task she performs dutifully but with evident discomfort. (There is no one better than Mirren at signaling discomfort with her eyes.) It is a reunion of sorts for her and her ex-husband, Sarah’s father, Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), the second of the Mossad agents who traveled to Berlin in ’65. The third, David (Ciarán Hinds), unheard of since the sixties, has just turned up, too, looking dark, distraught, in a panic. There is still a love triangle here — as well as a terrible secret that is eating them alive.
More than half of The Debt is set in East Berlin, where young Rachel is now Jessica Chastain, Stephan is played by Martin Csokas, and David’s avatar is Sam Worthington. The men are plainly awed by their sculpted, long-limbed female colleague, whom they must deliver to the medical office of Vogel, working incognito as a … Think of the worst place on earth for a Jewish woman to be a patient, even a pretend patient. Right, Dr. Mengele’s OB-GYN examining room, in his stirrups. The violations go on and on: Vogel has seen inside her. He has seen inside other Jews. He marvels at how little they resisted as they were herded into camps by the millions. They were so easy to victimize, so weak …
Maybe the Israeli version (which I haven’t seen) had so much psychological resonance that you could overlook the absurdities to come, but The Debt, after a gripping first half, turns into one howler after another. And yet it’s still gripping. The script, credited to Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman [sic] and Peter Straughan, might not rank high on the plausibility scale, but it sets up one tricky sequence after another. The cinematography by Ben Davis is un-flashy but fluid; the editing by Alexander Berner perfectly judged. The director, John Madden, is canny enough to know where the true suspense lies: in the faces of the characters. Every action — success, screw-up, lie — has momentous weight: The psyches of tens of millions hangs in the balance. To let Mengele/Vogel go would be too much to bear in a society so driven by the need to exorcise the specter of victimhood.
The actors, particularly Chastain and Mirren in the show-off roles, are not merely superb: They also constitute the best-looking collection of shiksas and goys playing Jews that I’ve ever seen. The makers of the old comedy record When You’re in Love the Whole World Is Jewish (“Steve McQueen is Jewish, would you believe it? / Such a living doll / in a prayer shawl … As a matter of fact, the whole world is Jewish / Since I fell in love with you, Rose McGonigle!”) would plotz at an English dame and a willowy, long-limbed future superstar fighting Nazis under the name “Rachel Singer.” And this Mengele, Jesper Christensen (Christensen, of course!), belongs in the pantheon of movie Nazis: smug, insinuating, a voyeur engorged by Jewish pain. How could he possibly be allowed to get away? If the real man didn’t die at the hands of Jews, well … Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?