Friday, 31 August 2012

The Debt

When one first begins to watch John Madden’s film The Debt, there is one obvious influence hanging over it: Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Indeed, I suspect that Munich was the enabling condition in how the Israeli thriller, of which Madden’s film is a remake, originally got made. The two year time gap between 2005 and 2007 seems to fit perfectly…

There is no way for this film – about a team of a team of crack Mossad agents heading to Europe undercover to avenge an atrocity committed against the Jewish people – to even pretend that it isn’t standing in a very large shadow, and so one suspects Madden and his DP Ben Davis just went with it. A lot of the unglamorous, dimly-lit scenes in the streets of East Berlin seem uncannily like the look that Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski achieved in Munich. Both sought to emphasize how much the look and feel of Europe has changed between the mid-20th century and the late 20th/early 21st century – how there used to be so much less glass, plastic, and stainless steel, and so much more brick, stone, and grim iron. Unlike today’s gleaming neo-liberal world which seems to consider last week ancient history, this world phlegmatically evokes the centuries of history that lie in virtually everything in Europe, and the subjectivity that comes with this knowledge. Likewise, the film’s violence is much more close and intensely visceral than one expects from a film of this sort. But I’ll get to that in due course…

Even more telling than all this, however, is the fact that Ciaran Hinds is cast as essentially the same character as in Munich, albeit older and sadder. There is also an Australian beefcake as another of the Mossad heroes, but whereas Munich had Eric Bana, The Debt has Sam Worthington, and it was here that my troubles with the film began. After Terminator Salvation, Avatar, and Clash of the Titans, Worthington’s presence carries certain connotations, and I was expecting The Debt to be far brisker and pulpier than it eventually was. Whereas I went in thinking only of Munich, by the time the credits rolled I was in a very different place, thinking of a totally different roster of influences. These include films such as Atonement, The Reader, and Sarah’s Key – films of our time which are still fascinated by World War II and the Holocaust as the defining events of the twentieth-century, but are nonetheless grimly aware that we are now heading into the second decade of the twenty-first century. By 2010, we are fully three generations removed from this era – four for the younger generation that watches the most movies today – and it is becoming progressively more difficult to come up with plots that make it viscerally and immediately relevant. Far more often, these films are about memory and closure at the end of one’s life, or in relation to an older relative’s. Atonement is about an author trying to honour her sister’s memory, but only once she’s on the cusp of retirement and senility; The Reader is about an established and disillusioned lawyer revisiting a boyhood love long after it has ceased to mean anything; and Sarah’s Key is about a mature woman who becomes determined to learn the truth about a wartime story which involves her in-laws’ apartment, even though all concerned are by now dead or geriatric.

Probably the most vivid instance of this sort of thing in the culture today has been the phenomenon of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The catalyst to the story is the oldest in the book – a reclusive millionaire hires our investigator-hero to learn what happened to his granddaughter – but again, it’s initially not about living results but about closure. Even the investigator, Blomkvist, is by now middle-aged enough and established enough to be more worried about salvaging his reputation and keeping his apartment than blowing the lid off anything. The real interest to the story, however, is Lisbeth Salander, who is in her mid-20s and whose life is still very much a volatile live wire. Her youth and backstory -- as we learn it in the next two books -- mean that the events at issue took place decades before she was even born, and in a totally different world from the digital age of which she is a child. Her intensity is such that she's able to give a jolt of new energy to a case which has gone old along with those concerned in it. Even its resolution, when the 50-something Harriet is finally found alive and well, feels rather flat and perfunctory in Lisbeth's absence.

In light of all this, The Debt hinges above all on Helen Mirren’s performance as the “30 years later” iteration of Jessica Chastain’s character, and her evocation of weariness with life – of having lived with baggage and issues for so long that one would be uncomfortable changing things, even for the better. By the time one is pushing 60, after all, one has already been through marriage and divorce, one’s career is for better or worse set, and you have grown kids just starting upon theirs. Even if one does re-enter the fray, one does so relying on experience rather than vigour, and the prospect of being killed in action is less horrific than merely sad and ignominious. The climactic fight scene, for instance, is deliberately the stiffest and most by-the-motions one I’ve ever seen, both participants not having nearly the passion for this they once did.

The aesthetic of these films, in turn, very much determines their audience and their reception. These are obviously films for mature cinephiles – either adults who directly identify with their protagonists, or younger viewers who are educated enough to appreciate what is at issue – and as such their basically middle-brow mentality is unsurprising. The fast, loud, and unrelenting tones one finds in films openly pitched at the teenage market today are so vulgarly presentist that these films seem even smarter than they are by comparison. And yet somehow there is still a sense of cop-out; a pathetic declaration that once one has passed a certain age one should simply surrender to the burden of history and no longer even think of taking part in it. This is then legitimized by the impression such films give that all the bumptious, brutal, horrors of the mid-twentieth-century are safely back there, and totally over with now, in our tranquil twenty-first century world of neo-liberal consumerism. This is, we all know, utter rubbish, and it was here that a third point of comparison struck me.

The Debt is particularly telling when you compare it to Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. The connection first struck me at the film’s mid-point, in its sole outrageous and provocative moment. Because the Mossad agents’ target is working as a gynecologist now, the only way to get to him is for Jessica Chastian’s character to pose as a patient, which thus entails putting her feet in stirrups and letting him minutely examine her vulva region. Watching him try to engage her in friendly small talk under these conditions, knowing of her mission as we do, is frankly hilarious in a warped way, and receives a brilliant punch line when he observes that “you had intercourse last night! That’s good. I think we’ll see results.” She has, you see, half-heartedly had sex with her other teammate, Sam Worthington having taken too long to make a move. It’s the sort of thing you don’t usually see is such staid, middle-brow films as this, and it reminds one that Black Book is also about an Isreali woman who has a husband, a couple of kids, a job as a schoolteacher, and whose wartime experiences in occupied Holland would seem totally remote from her current life. Diabolically brilliant cynic that he is, though, Verhoeven would never let it rest thus. The film’s opening subtitle – establishing that it’s 1957 – seems innocuous enough, and after more than two gripping hours of the movie’s flashback narrative, likely nobody would remember it.

Only in the last minute of the film, however, when our heroine ceases her recollection and heads off with her family, do we see that they are heading towards the kibbutz which she’s founded with the Holocaust loot she recovered twelve years ago, and which is now surrounded by a barbed wire fence and bristling with sandbags and gun emplacements. Suddenly it comes back to one that since this is 1957, the Suez war is still going on, and Israel will be on high alert for the Palestinian troops augmenting Nasser’s army. This in turn cues one to think of Israel’s obnoxious habit of continuing, to this day, to provocatively build settlements inside the West Bank, just as a general fuck-you to Palestine, and forestall any peace that might require concessions. The contrast with The Debt is total. Even with the best intentions, Verhoeven seems to be saying, you can never really escape from history, and in trying to retire peaceably to home and family after the buffetings of one war, you may in fact do your humble part toward starting the next.

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