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The Debt
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Synopsis for
The Debt (2010/I) More at IMDbPro »

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Tel Aviv, Israel. 1966. The hangar doors of an airplane that has just landed open, revealing a woman and two men standing silently at the hatch. They are Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), David Peretz (Sam Worthington), and Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas). "Breathe," Stephan tells the others as they step off the plane. We notice that Rachel has a large bandage on her right cheek.

A narration tells us that the three are Mossad agents who were sent to capture Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the 'Surgeon of Birkeanu'; a Nazi war criminal. Stephan is the youngest unit commander in Israel military history and David had his 29th birthday during the course of the mission. Rachel was only 25 at the start.

The film cuts to a ballroom scene where a woman is speaking. In part of her speech, she reveals that the three were unable to capture the target; he died trying to evade capture. An older woman listens in the audience with a noticeable scar on her cheek. Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) speaks with her daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) who had written a book detailing her mother's mission. The book, and the three agents it is about, is being honored at the celebration. The crowd applauds and Sarah tells her mother that she is so proud to be her daughter.

At an apartment complex, a man knocks on a room door. A man opens it and greets David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds), saying he's been expecting him. David walks with the man out to his car. On the street, he looks nearby to another car and sees a man beside it. It is Stephan (Tom Wilkinson). The man David is accompanying asks if everything is all right. David mutters that everything is fine but, without warning, runs into traffic and allows himself to be run over by a large truck as Stephan watches in horror.

Back at the party, Rachel sits with her daughter in the ballroom. The audience wants Rachel to read an excerpt from the book. When a friend of Sarah's asks if Rachel helped write the book, Sarah says no and that her father was the one to help with the details. Her father, Stephan, arrives at the party and the audience applauds the two heroes as Rachel stands to read from the book.

New Years Eve, 1965. Rachel is in an apartment in East Berlin listening to the fireworks outside. The apartment's walls leak so she places pots around to catch the water. Nearby there is a man chained to the wall. Rachel goes to the kitchen but, when she hears the water plopping in a pot strangely, she goes back into the room to find the man gone. Suddenly, he leaps out and attacks her, slashing her face with a piece of plate. They struggle and the man knocks her out before leaving the apartment. Rachel wakes up and drags herself on the ground, toppling a chair with a coat draped over it. In the coat is a pistol. She drags herself to the balcony as the man runs down the alley. She fires one shot, killing him. The man was Dieter Vogel.

After the book party, Rachel and Stephan are in a car talking. They had apparently divorced years ago and are not on good terms. Stephan says he knows David went to see Rachel the day previously and wants to know what he said. Rachel says he had been traveling a lot but didn't say much else. Stephan presses the issue and Rachel says that he should speak to David himself if he really wants to know. Stephan lets his silence speak for itself and Rachel realizes that David is dead. They go to David's apartment and Rachel wonders why David would want to kill himself. She walks into a separate room and breaks down crying.

The next day, Rachel and Stephan go to the beach to meet with Sarah's family. Stephan gives Rachel an envelope and a case and tells her to 'handle it'. Rachel waves goodbye to her daughter and leaves for the airport.

West Berlin, 1965. Rachel crosses over to East Berlin and meets up with David. They are posing as husband and wife for the mission and rendezvous with Stephan at an apartment. Their mission is to locate The Surgeon, capture him, and smuggle him out of Germany so he can stand trial in Israel. Stephan and David share a room while Rachel bunks alone.

Rachel, David, and Stephan spend their time training, taking turns sparring with each other and practicing disarming techniques. Rachel discusses her cover story, making sure she has it memorized to heart.

Later that night, Stephan talks to David about women. He notes he's never seen David look at a woman, not even Rachel. Stephan asks if he should know something (hinting at the possibility of homosexuality). They see Rachel come out of the shower wearing only a towel and David stares. "I guess you looked now," Stephan says.

Back at David's apartment in the present day, Stephan shows Rachel an article. A man in a mental institution claims to be The Surgeon. Stephan says they need to handle it. He says he'd asked for David's help but he wouldn't give it. Rachel slaps Stephan and yells at him. He knew David had been ill for years. Rachel leaves the apartment.

Back in East Berlin, 1965, Rachel and David go to a local ob-gyn clinic and wait for Rachel's appointment. She is pretending to have trouble conceiving with her husband to justify the visit. The doctor, Bernhardt, comes in and asks her about her family fertility history. When she reveals she is an only child, the doctor says that may be a potential sign of infertility. Rachel tells him that her mother died in WWII. "My poor child," he says. Rachel takes pictures with a camera hidden in her necklace as he works to verify this is the man they are looking for.

Stephan hands the necklace off to another agent on a bus.

Stephan and David take a walk near an abandoned train station. It has been closed to the public and is guarded around the clock by armed guards. Their plan is to knock the doctor out and put him on one of the trains that passes through. There is a postal route that passes right by the tracks, so they will steal one of the vans to get close without anyone suspecting anything. Since trains are not allowed to stop there, they will have one of their agents on the train cause a distraction so they can slip on undetected. All they need is confirmation that Doctor Bernhardt is The Surgeon.

David and Stephan steal a postal van for their plan.

Stephan does another hand off with an agent on the bus. It is the confirmation they were hoping for. They are authorized to proceed.

David reveals it is his 29th birthday. They go to the bar and celebrate. Rachel asks what he wants out of life. David tells them he wants to get this war criminal back to Israel so the world can see what he has done, so that everyone will know the truth. David is a man of honor and truth.

The next night, David watches Rachel get out of the shower. She stands by a nearby heater to dry herself. David tells her she is brave. Rachel scoffs at the statement saying she is scared. "But you do it anyway, because it is the right thing to do," David says. They stare at each other and lean in to kiss. David pulls away, realizing he is losing objectivity. Rachel is crushed.

Later, she plays the piano and cries. David is in the kitchen going over paperwork, unable to concentrate. Stephan comes in and joins Rachel. He tells her she is so beautiful. Rachel lets herself be seduced by him and the next morning it is clear they slept together. Rachel and David go back to the ob-gyn holding hands, though they seemed strained.

Rachel goes back to the doctor. The doctor notes she had sex and says that it is good that she is trying. Rachel then reveals that she knows who he 'really' is. Vogel has no time to react. Rachel uses her legs to put him in a headlock then stabs him with a concealed syringe to knock him out. Rachel screams for the nurse (Brigitte Kren), pretending that Vogel had a heart attack. The nurse calls for an ambulance. Stephan had previously hacked into the phone line so that, when the nurse makes the call, he and David drive off in an ambulance to beat the real paramedics. The nurse reveals on the call that Bernhardt/Vogel is her husband. Rachel is stunned by the implication.

David and Stephan come in and wheel Vogel away, telling his wife she cannot ride along due to new regulations. Rachel leaves and is picked up down the block. They prepare to finish the mission.

The trio set up at the post office, using the passing trains as cover to cut at the fence so they can slip through.

Vogel is tied up in the van. He starts to move; the drugs are wearing off.

Stephan and David are almost through the fence when they see an employee come out for a smoke. Rachel goes out and flirts with him to distract him. David and Stephan continue to cut through the fence.

Vogel regains consciousness and honks the horn of the van just as the trio's train stops, claiming something is on the tracks as part of the ruse. Stephan knocks Vogel out but it is too late. The guards are spooked by the horn and go to investigate. Rachel tries to play it cool. Stephan says they need to get Vogel on the train but David will not leave without Rachel. The guards see the cut fence. All hell breaks loose. Rachel is forced to knock out the guard she was flirting with, catching the attention of the rest of them. The trio are forced to shoot back at the guards as they get into the van and drive off into the night.

Stephan panics, since they missed the drop at the train and says they have failed the mission and their country. David is calmer and says that, since they still have Vogel, the mission is not over. They just need a new plan to get him out.

Back at the apartment they determine the terms of the plan. They will keep Vogel locked up and will take shifts guarding and feeding him. Since Rachel has been seen, she is forbidden to leave the apartment.

Vogel speaks to Rachel, asking if his wife is okay. Rachel doesn't respond but eventually gives him a nod. Stephan warns her not to speak to him because he can get into their heads.

Over the next few days they take turns watching him. Vogel is defiant, routinely spitting up food and trying to fight David and Stephan. However, he is calmer with Rachel. One day he tells her he knows she wasn't lying about her mother dying in war. He tells her he is sorry for her pain. Rachel is unnerved by this.

David comes back in as Rachel leaves the room where Vogel is. Rachel asks him why he didn't leave when he had the chance. David looks at her and kisses her. He says he stayed for her. Rachel is stunned, then kisses him back. They are interrupted by Stephan. Stephan tells them the Americans have agreed to help. They just need to wait it out a few more days.

A few more days pass and Rachel is getting more stricken with cabin fever. Stephan comes in and says the Americans have changed their minds and decided not to help because apparently an East German border guard had been killed during their getaway. Rachel goes for the door, needing air, but is not allowed to leave. She falls to the floor and cries.

The three attempt to plan their next move. Stephan says they should just kill Vogel. David retorts that they are not monsters and Vogel must stand trial. There is a knock at the door. They think Stephan was followed. Rachel answers and Stephan stays with a gun to Vogel, saying if it is one of his friends, he will die first. Rachel comes back in. It was just their neighbor, inviting them to a New Year's party.

David is feeding Vogel. Vogel taunts him about Rachel being with Stephan, saying it does not fit. She should be with David since he would want a family. Vogel then drops a bombshell; he knows Rachel is one month pregnant and Stephan is the father. David tries to hold in his rage. Vogel goes on about how Jews are inherently selfish and how four armed men in death camps could lead thousands to die because not one would sacrifice themselves for others. Vogel says he realized, in that moment, that their kind did not deserve to live. David, overcome with rage, smashes a plate over Vogel's face and starts punching him. Stephan finds him and pulls him away.

Vogel was able to grab a plate shard and starts cutting at the ropes that hold him. Rachel cleans him and the mess, unaware of this.

We now return to the scene where Rachel reads from her daughter's book. The ending plays out in almost the same way: Vogel escapes from his binds, slashes her face, and knocks her out. There is only one problem with the true ending of the story. Rachel never killed Vogel, he got away.

In the past, just after Vogel escapes, David and Stephan return to the apartment and find out what happened. Stephan is freaked at the implication of losing a war criminal like this and how they will be punished. David and Rachel agree to take blame. Suddenly, Stephan gets an idea. They will lie. They will say Vogel tried to escape and they killed him. Stephan reasons that they need to save face for Israel. Besides, Vogel should never resurface and will spend the rest of his life hiding in fear of being killed. David agrees to lie. Rachel is shocked that he would give in to his moral code but eventually gives in as well. They hide the truth for thirty years and are celebrated for the heroics they never performed.

Rachel and Stephan talk with each other on the beach, 1997. Stephan tells her that Vogel has been located at a hospital. He doesn't know where, but a reporter in the Ukraine does. Rachel will need to find out the location. Stephan looks at her. "If I could go back, I would change it all." Looking at their daughter he adds, "Everything but one."

Israel, 1970. Stephan and Rachel are having a dinner party. David is there. Rachel tells him Stephan has a lot of 'girlfriends' and he uses them to punish her. When David asks why, Rachel says for several reasons. Because she got pregnant. Because she doesn't love Stephan. "Because of you," she tells David.

David tells her that he is leaving the country tonight. Rachel is shocked but David reveals that he can't keep up the cover story anymore. He pleads for her to come with him. Rachel says she can't (probably afraid to leave her daughter) but David presses for her to do so (he would take care of both of them). Rachel says no and is momentarily distracted by Stephan. David leaves, dejected. That is the last time she will see him for almost thirty years.

Back in the present, Rachel has reached the Ukraine and the newspaper office. She pretends to post a classified ad and notes the security code, having placed invisible ink on the ad's envelope. After the place closes, she picks the lock and disarms the alarm. She goes to the reporter's desk and finds the information she is looking for. She is shocked when she sees that the folder contains a recent picture of her. Suddenly, a couple of drunken reporters come in and she has to hide and listen to them have sex until they leave.

Back to the day before David kills himself, David attends one of Rachel's speeches and meets up with her. He asks if she has been with anyone since Stephan. Rachel responds there was someone else, but 'he left', hinting at David himself. David tells her he's been traveling for the past 25 years looking for Vogel. Rachel is shocked and asks what he would have done had he found him. David says he would have brought him to trial and told the truth, thinking that she would have done the same. Rachel denies this, saying her daughter would be crushed, not just professionally, but personally if the truth ever came out. David goes to leave but asks that, if they could go back and he had waited for her, would she have gone with him? "We can't go back," Rachel says and leaves.

In Ukraine, Rachel goes to the hospital and waits in reception. The reporter in question comes and she overhears the room number where Vogel is apparently held. She goes to the room, number 414, but stops in the bathroom first, opening the case Stephan gave her. Inside is a syringe filled with poison. She goes into Vogel's room to administer the poison through his IV, but doesn't. He starts to speak to her, thinking she is the reporter, and Rachel senses something is off. She sits down and starts writing a note on a piece of paper.

Rachel calls Stephan and says the man they found is not Vogel. The old man had been fed the stories and is so senile he is just repeating them. Stephan is relieved that they didn't have to kill anyone. Rachel tells him that David committed suicide, not because the truth was going to be revealed, but because he didn't want to lie anymore. In addition, he looked to her for the approval to tell the truth and she denied him. Being denied that by the woman he loved broke him. He couldn't take it anymore. Rachel just wants her daughter to be proud of her for something she actually did. Rachel decides to tell the truth. Stephan tells her not to but she hangs up the phone. Stephan stares off, realizing the powder keg is about to explode.

Rachel is about to leave when she sees a man on the staircase staring at her. She looks back to see him gone. She has been recognized. She gives chase and finds the man in the bathroom. It is Vogel. He has been feeding his stories of the crimes he committed to a senile man in the ultimate ploy to get out of punishment. He pretends to be incoherent to get close to Rachel, only to stab her with a pair of scissors. They struggle, and she stabs him with a piece of broken mirror. Vogel stabs her again and leaves her in the bathroom to die.

Vogel takes a few steps then falls to the ground dead. In the struggle, Rachel managed to stab him with the poison syringe. She is badly wounded, but is able to pick herself up, hold a towel to her wound, and limps out into the hall, her mission fulfilled at last.

The reporter goes into the fake Vogel's room to finish his story when he sees the note that Rachel had left. It tells him who she is and the truth of what happened in 1966; the truth that had been hidden for so long, finally ready to be told.
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