The Moviegoer: "The Debt," 9/11, and the Ethics of Recompense

After seeing The Debt (Dir. John Madden), it struck me as fitting that the film was released just before the tenth anniversary of 9/11. This sentiment was somewhat justified by a Madden interview with The Atlantic in which he was asked if the film made a moral statement. Madden’s response was interesting: “the argument is that a man like [Doktor Bernhardt] deserves to be brought to justice,” but the film also “points [to] the notion [of] politically expedient means pursued toward an end that bleeds over to, ‘Does America have the right to assassinate Osama Bin Laden unilaterally?’”

Madden suggests that America may be hypocritically holding others to a particular moral standard which is not mutually maintained. That may be true, but I think Madden’s film raises questions more penetrating than the ethics of kidnapping international fugitives.

The Debt oscillates between 1966 and 1997, featuring three spy protagonists—Rachel, Stefan, and David. In 1966, they undertook an espionage mission to capture Nazi war criminal Doktor Bernhardt. As the story goes in 1997, the three of them heroically killed Bernhardt. Yet, something is dreadfully amiss: Rachel and Stefan seem withered in ways that are not merely physical, and David has just committed suicide. What’s wrong with the venerated trio?

Housed with the kidnapped doctor of mutilation and death, the protagonist triumvirate feels the enormous burden of the entire Jewish people. And they also feel the burdens of their more immediate loved ones who were murdered by Nazis. At the provocation of the Nazi Doctor—their righteous pursuit of justice begins to spiral into an uncontrollable vengeance. At different times, they each go into a passionate rage of violence. They even reprimand themselves at one point: “we must remember what we are and what we are not.”

We come to learn that Bernhardt escaped, and the trio decided to perpetuate the lie that he was killed. The rationale was that justice could be served if the Jews believed recompense had been demanded. But this, for me, is the primary issue raised by The Debt: how the payment owed for evil affects not just the inflictor, but also the victim.

The debt owed for the Nazis’ sins creates a pressure that hovers over the protagonists. Can Doktor Bernhardt’s death restore the broken victims? By perpetuating the lie that Bernhardt has been killed, the trio’s implicit answer to the question is “yes.” But by preferring this distorted sense of justice and restoration over the truth, they create a debt for themselves. Years later, in a rush of angst-ridden guilt following David’s suicide, Rachel says, “I knew we’d have to pay.”

When we demand that the enemy pays, where is the line between justice and vengeance? Does the desire for vengeance disintegrate or restore the victim? As Christians, how do we rightly pursue justice on earth, while also transcending vengeance in lieu of the cross of Christ and the personal peace only He can restore? With 9/11 fresh on our minds, The Debt forces us to ask these difficult questions.

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