As Jessica Chastain was preparing for her role in the Mossad thriller “The Debt,” her voluminous research led her to the story of a survivor who witnessed the destruction of her entire family in the Holocaust. “It was a woman’s memory of something she had seen as a young girl,” said Chastain, a 30-year-old Juilliard graduate who has turned heads for her performances in “The Tree of Life” and “The Help.”
Chastain used the memory as the back story for her “Debt” character, Rachel, a Mossad agent sent in 1966 to kidnap and bring to trial in Israel a notorious Nazi, dubbed the “surgeon of Birkenau,” who was living in hiding in East Berlin. “Because the memory was so devastating, and because it is real, it helped me understand a character who essentially is willing to martyr herself for her country,” Chastain said. “Rachel wonders why, if her family was killed, does she get the opportunity to live? And because she has that opportunity, how must she live to be worthy of that gift?”
The debt owed the 6 million haunts the film, which follows Chastain and her fellow agents, David (Sam Worthington of “Avatar”) and Stephan (Marton Csokas) as they stalk the Nazi Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in decrepit East Berlin. The action cuts back and forth from those events to Tel Aviv in 1997, when the agents — in these scenes played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkenson and Ciarán Hinds — are forced to confront a secret they have long harbored about Vogel.
Based on a 2007 Israeli film, “HaHov,” “The Debt” is the latest drama to delve into the emotional aftermath of the Holocaust, joining such recent films as Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s “Sarah’s Key,” in its exploration of survivor’s guilt.
“Debt” director John Madden (who is British and earned an Oscar nomination for “Shakespeare in Love”), was as daunted as Paquet-Brenner by the so-called Holocaust fatigue that has affected moviegoers: “I was very aware of not wanting to hitch a ride on those horrendous events in order to make a revenge thriller,” Madden said. But when he first viewed an early English-language adaptation of “HaHov,” “the material shot off the page at me,” he said. “While it worked like a thriller, it also had an emotional and moral complexity and could raise issues about justice, which seemed especially relevant at a time when we were seeking to kidnap and assassinate people like Osama bin Laden.”
Madden, 62, was born in 1949 in “the shadow of the war” and admits to having had as a boy a “grim fascination” with the Jewish experience. He was well aware that the Jewish students segregated into one entire house at his English school were victims of casual anti-Semitism. Madden is married to a Jewish woman and previously tackled issues of war and remembrance in his 1989 television mini-series, “After the War.”
Like that earlier project, “The Debt” “is not a film about the Holocaust,” he said. “But clearly, every single thing in it is governed by the notion of how people try to come to terms with that event and what that kind of extreme behavior says about us as human beings.”
As Madden reworked the script, a moral dialectic emerged between the male leads: There is the more cavalier and ambitious Stephan, who does not have the same painful history as his comrades, and there is David, who like Rachel is the sole survivor of his family and is obsessed with bringing Vogel to trial. “His motivation is standing for what Israel is and wanting to shape that nation and ideology into something that is a worthy recompense to the 6 million,” Madden explained.
“David is like a ticking time bomb,” Worthington said of his character. “He feels his debt to his people, and his family, and hopes to lay all those demons to rest. So when the plan goes awry, his demons explode.”
As research, Madden read about Peter Malkin, the agent who captured war criminal Adolf Eichmann on a street in Buenos Aires in 1960. “Eichmann was like a hunted animal,” said Madden, who brought that quality to his fictional war criminal. “My conversations with Jesper were about, how do we portray a person who is capable of these monstrosities? What arrangements has he made with himself, how does he continue to justify his actions, in a way that allows him to not just live but to be involved in a branch of medicine that is enabling rather than withholding life?”
Some of the most harrowing scenes are those in which Chastain spreads her legs in the stirrups in Vogel’s fertility clinic, pretending to be a patient while surreptitiously snapping photographs with a camera hidden inside her necklace. “Her position is not only physically humiliating, it’s terrifying, because he is a man who represents the destruction of her people — he is like the boogeyman,” said Chastain, who read about Nazi medical experiments and studied the Israeli martial art Krav Maga to prepare for the role.
For the claustrophobic sequences in which the agents are holed up with Vogel, who sits tethered and is force-fed gruel that frequently covers his body, the actors spent five weeks on a decaying apartment set inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon. “We really did feel like rats in a cage,” said Chastain, who conferred with Mirren to “match” the older and younger Rachels.
“Perhaps more than any other character I have played, Rachel broke my heart,” Chastain added.
It was Chastain who brought Rachel’s heartbreaking back story to Mirren, who agreed to use it in her own performance. “I don’t want to be too specific about it, because I believe an actor must have secrets,” Chastain said. “And also because it is someone’s real story, which I don’t want to betray.
The film opens Aug. 31.