Does going to the cineplex require suspending all disbelief when the lights dim? Oftentimes. That’s part of the fun. But such escapism is far dicier when movies touch on fraught historical events like the Holocaust. The Debt, a nail-biter starring Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkerson as a pair of retired Mossad agents haunted by a mission gone horribly wrong, is thoroughly enjoyable. The LA Times calls it “a superbly crafted espionage thriller.” It is. However, the movie’s undeniable appeal is sinister, as it relies on standard tropes that, when fully digested, leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
The Debt fails on two counts, neither inconsequential. The first relates to its villain: Dr. Dieter Vogel, the “Surgeon of Birkenau,” a thinly-veiled likening of Joseph Mengale, the SS physician at Auschwitz-Birkenau who performed experiments on prisoners and, after the war, managed to elude justice in South America until his death in 1979. Like Mengale, Vogel has slipped the dragnet; only he is hiding in plain sight after Germany’s defeat, working as a gynecologist in East Berlin.
A crack team of Mossad agents is sent in to kidnap Vogel and bring him to Israel for trial. Upon his initial apprehension, explored in a lengthy flashback, as the film toggles between the present and the 1960s, Vogel turns out to be the personification of evil that his past implies. The unrepentant monster is cast as a sort of Hannibal Lecter, the diabolical genius from The Silence of The Lambs, tormenting his Jewish captors with psychological games. Even in a later sequence, when Vogel is elderly and decrepit, he remains a vile beast.
The movie’s rendering of Vogel is both hackneyed and philosophically suspect. It panders to a deep-seated desire to explain away those who commit heinously depraved acts as aberrant “others” whose wickedness is so beyond the pale as to be inhuman. This caricature, a rough analogue of that invoked in Jews by Nazis, cast as Untermenschen, or sub-species, is glaringly simplistic, even for a Mengale-like figure.
The Debt tells us that sadism is incomprehensible. Is it though? Certain related questions are mysterious. One concerns why a genocidal creed took hold in Germany in the 1930s and not in other European countries also steeped in Christian anti-Semitism. But barbarism as a general phenomenon is less enigmatic.
The capacity for sadism is not uncommon. People of all ethnicities and nationalities can channel it, often with frightening ease. History tells us as much. So does social science research. Phillip Zimbardo’s experiment at Stanford University in 1971 involving inmate-guard role-playing by students demonstrated how easily power is abused; after just six days, the exercise had to be stopped when “officers” began torturing “prisoners.” In the wake of Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo, recalling his earlier experiment, spoke eloquently about the human potential for cruelty under the right “transformational” circumstances, such as when it is sanctioned by higher authorities.
A binary view of morality that separates people into two categories, good and evil, is mistaken, or worse, a cop out. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer, observed: “[It] was when I lay there [in the Gulag] on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between parties either—but right through every heart, and through all human hearts.”
Our own moral imperfection does not mean we should suspend all moral judgment, least of all for the acts of war criminals. Nor can it be denied that some sociopaths, pathologically devoid of empathy, are unusually prone to brutality. But the true horror of the Holocaust was that ordinary people who led ordinary lives were its foot soldiers; without them the genocide would have been impossible.
Historians like Daniel Goldhagen have found that unexceptional citizens from all walks of life conscripted into German police battalions and auxiliary units by the Nazi regime could be as savage as the SS. Hannah Arendt picked up on this point. She famously pointed out the “banality of evil” after watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the Final Solution’s masterminds who was seemingly motivated by the most prosaic reason: career advancement. To whitewash this stark reality by portraying Nazis as brutes out of Central Casting suggests that those wholly unrecognizable as humans perpetrated the killing. But if “never again” is to have meaning, it’s precisely because it could (and does) happen again, by otherwise unexceptional people in exceptional circumstances. It’s in our dark nature.
A more realistic and haunting rendering of a Nazi war criminal, then, would portray him as charming and likable, handsome and cultured. A Hollywood A-lister would play the role. In the morning, after reading some Bible verses and lovingly playing with his adoring children, our dashing rogue would steal a kiss from his beautiful wife, drive to the ministry and, once there, dispassionately sign the death warrant for thousands.
The Debt’s second drawback is equally serious. Speaking to one of his Mossad captors who lost every member of his family in the Holocaust, Vogel observes how easy it was to exterminate Jews. The pathetic lot put up no resistance, he says smugly, adding that Jews ought to examine their own culpability for their demise.
The scene’s purpose initially seems to be to drive home Vogel’s wickedness. But events soon vindicate his observation. This happens when his captors, supposedly highly trained operatives, bungle things after it becomes clear that Vogel cannot be spirited out of East Berlin under the watchful eye of the communist authorities. The secret agents crack under pressure. They blow it. As a result, their loathsome detainee manages to escape, rendering the Jews victims yet again. Hence The Debt’s debt: righting this historical wrong, both for the three Mossad agents and, metaphorically, for Jews as a people.
The injustice of having the worst of the worst slip from their grasp claws at the three Mossad agents—and at the audience. Indeed, the two-hour film is sustained by a longing for Vogel’s comeuppance. A final act of violence that serves as the film’s denouement closes the circle, allowing the audience to leave comforted that their effigy finally got its due. Order is restored, the debt paid—at least in this instance.
The film’s ending is emotionally satisfying but not exculpatory. Jews remain on the hook for their historical persecution, a result of a practiced docility that Vogel deftly exploits. Seen in this light, The Debt is a cautionary tale. The point is worth pondering, but first consider how common the view is of Jewish submissiveness, including among Jews. Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish Jew confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, asked in 1942, “Why did we allow ourselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter?” His answer: Nazi terror made Jews passive. Ringelblum, for one, would not be similarly cowed, and he managed to escape ahead of the Ghetto’s final liquidation.
The 2008 film Defiance depicts the true story of four Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe who, like Ringelblum, refused to be marched into cattle cars. The brothers, along with 1,500 Jewish refugees, fled into the Belarusian forests. All survived the war. Typical Holocaust-themed films “about victims” irritated Edward Zwick, who directed the movie. The story about the Bielski brothers was different. “Rather than victims wearing yellow stars,” he observed, “here were fighters in fur chapkas brandishing submachine guns.”
Zwick’s views about Holocaust-themed films are poignant, as Defiance, even more overtly than The Debt, portrays Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis as victims of their own making as much as victims of the Nazis. The shtetl Jews who prevaricate in face of annihilation are nebbish nothings, feeble intellectuals that stand in contrast to the men of action, the Bielskis. Even the casting is telling; James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, plays one of the tough Bielski “Yids.”
In one of the film’s scenes, a young man in spectacles drops a beam while constructing shelter in the forest. When asked by the Bielskis whether he has ever used a hammer, he replies, “I am an intellectual,” eliciting derisive laughter from the brothers. Later, the same man, now wielding a hammer skillfully, proudly announces, “If my friends at the New Socialist Club could see me now. I haven’t read a book in months.” His redemption is complete. His eggheaded kin who elected to stay behind in the village remain un-redeemed and, as a result, are slaughtered.
The story of the Bielskis and others like them, though inspiring, are the exceptions to the rule. They aren’t representative. The reason is simple: resisting genocide is virtually impossible when state power is employed to carry out the killing. Were it otherwise, Kurds, Cambodians, and Darfurians, amongst others, would not have endured their own holocausts. And Ringelblum, who was eventually captured and killed, would have survived the war.
The futility of a people effectively resisting their own government’s genocidal designs is so obvious as to make any suggestion otherwise offensive. And indeed non-Jews who imply Jewish responsibility for their own persecution are given no quarter. Take Pastor John Hagee. The right-wing evangelical’s suggestion that Hitler was sent by God to corral wayward Jews back to Israel in order to fulfill biblical prophecy generated a storm (though not before he was invited to address AIPAC because of his supposed Zionism). John McCain rejected the pastor’s endorsement for president and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) demanded a retraction.
Yet Jews can imply Jewish responsibility for the Holocaust without consequence. (Zwick is Jewish and The Debt is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov). They’re even praised. Abraham Foxman, ADL’s director who has made a career of fighting anti-Semitism, real and perceived, called Defiance an “important contribution.” What explains the double standard?
In 1948, Arendt identified a new breed of Jew, a “warrior tribe,” rising in Palestine that embraced a rugged ethos. This new, braver man was a pioneer that, by the sweat of his brow, would settle a “land without people for a people without a land,” as the Zionist myth had it. More importantly, he was equipped to protect himself in a decidedly hostile neighborhood. He could take a punch, and throw his own.
The “Spartan” Jew was more than an evolutionary adaptation to new surroundings. He was also a product of millennia of maltreatment, culminating in the Holocaust, which instilled in him disdain for the Jew he sought to replace: the Intellectual Jew who prized learning. That archetypal Jew excelled in yeshiva, in the arts and sciences, and in those trades open to him. Jew and Gentile alike revered his learnedness. His expertise was sought out, emulated. Libraries housed his work. His achievements would prompt John Adams to say, “I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation.” Yet ultimately his intellectual prowess led to the crematoria.
It’s not unusual to blame the victim for his victimization, and for the Spartan Jew, doing so was self-evident and useful—useful to banish the Intellectual Jew that had led Jewry to ruin. This explains why the Bielskis are not cast merely as heroes who defied the Nazis. They also heroically defy the Intellectual Jews, or those who the Bielskis call “Pedantic Jews,” who are as weak in character as they are strong of mind. Similarly, the villain in The Debt is not simply an aging man whose past belies his banal manner. A grotesque monster that luxuriates in sadism, the unpunished Vogel is an explicit reminder of the Intellectual Jew’s meekness in the face of evil—a message that doubtlessly was not missed by Ha-Hov’s Israeli audience. In this respect, the film is a cautionary tale. Be tough, it preaches. Very tough.
The message of self-empowerment resonates. And why wouldn’t it? Seen through one prism, Jews are history’s losers, the perennial pariahs tolerated in good times, tossed into ovens in bad. To achieve a measure of security, so it goes, Jews must dispense with their Achilles’ heel, their intellectual tradition, as it is the source of their meekness even though it is also one of their defining features and lasting contributions. This is a false choice. Only in the movies is the Spartan Jew able to guarantee his security when confronted with hostile state power. In real life he’s not. Nor in real life is the Intellectual Jew uniformly docile and therefore inviting of his own demise. Only in movies. But, then, films are fantasies. They’re about suspending disbelief.
Regardless, disagreeing with a film’s underlying message is part of the fun. It gives you something to chew over. And if you’ve seen the film with a Jew who doesn’t associate having brains with having no brawn, you can even have stimulating conversation about it.