That the Holocaust is now acceptable fodder for tasteful, Oscar-attracting thrillers has been the case for awhile, long before Kate Winslet got nude and attempted to read a menu in The Reader.
Most of these “tradition of quality” Holocaust dramas at least pay lip service to the notion that, when it comes to the mass extermination of 6 million European Jews, there are no acceptable answers. Any “explanation” of the event would be an unspeakable vulgarity.
Even so, a lot of these movies say one thing and do another. In other words, while the specter of the Holocaust hangs like a dark curtain over the lives of those who survived it (both Jews and Nazis alike) to the point that it feels like their lives will never truly be lived or reach any satisfying sort of closure, many Holocaust thrillers emphasize standard-issue narrative resolutions.
Which isn’t to say they get the Holocaust “wrong,” but rather they cheapen it almost more than, say, some of the more unspeakably vulgar grindhouse exploitations of Hitler’s “final solution” (i.e. Salon Kitty or The Night Porter).
That’s why probably the best single scene in The Reader (a movie not just problematic but downright thematically offensive) was when Lena Olin scoffs at Ralph Fiennes for even thinking about making anything “right.”
Which is what Helen Mirren’s character in the new thriller The Debt spends most of the film’s running time trying not to do. Her character, Mossad agent Rachel Singer, is revered for having killed the now incognito Butcher of Birkenau (real life Nazi surgeon/monster Josef Mengele) along with her fellow agents Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds) back in the 1960s.
She eventually married the former. The latter seems haunted and throws himself in front of a bus at the tail end of the movie’s opening credits.
As Rachel’s daughter prepares to launch her non-fiction account of Rachel & Company’s heroic mission (which was actually somewhat botched, as their original intentions were to deliver the Butcher to Israel to stand public trial), it becomes increasingly clear that there are a few fictions mixed in with their story about what really happened.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) jumbles the chronology in such a way that the big question mark of “what really happened” is never less than engrossing. But, again, the streamlined professionalism of such thrillers ends up steamrolling over the terrifying realities of the 20th century’s darkest hour.