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Nazi Doctor Conjures Memories of Teeth-Drilling Madman: Movies

Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren in
Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren in "The Debt," a film directed by John Madden. Photographer: Laurie Sparham/Focus Features via Bloomberg

Aug. 31 (Bloomberg) -- The no-anesthetic, teeth-drilling scene in “Marathon Man” made dentists seem scary. Now another Nazi-hunting film may do the same for gynecologists.

“The Debt” is a taut thriller about three Israeli secret agents assigned to track down a notorious war criminal in the mid-1960s. Posing as a young woman trying to get pregnant, one of the spies visits an East German gynecologist suspected of being the doctor who killed and maimed thousands of concentration-camp victims.

She takes photos of him with a tiny necklace camera as he examines her and questions her about her background. The tension builds as suspicions mount that she might blow her cover and find herself at the mercy of the Mengele-like doctor’s menacing metal instruments.

John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) has directed a masterful remake of the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov.” Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, “The Debt” is a gripping drama spiced with intrigue, romance and a superb cast that includes Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Worthington and rising star Jessica Chastain.

It’s a tale of three places and two times -- a divided Berlin during the Cold War, when the young Mossad agents try to kidnap Dr. Dieter Vogel; Israel in 1997, where the now retired agents are venerated as heroes; and that same year in Ukraine, where Mirren tries to assuage her guilty conscience about her celebrity and the outcome of the original mission.

Divided Berlin

The scenes in Berlin evoke that tense time when the city was the focal point of the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

The agents plan to smuggle their Nazi captive across the border and then bring him to justice in Israel. The contrast between drab, oppressive East Berlin and open, prosperous West Berlin is a chilling reminder of the horrendous wall that separated families and left many freedom seekers riddled with bullets.

Mirren, Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds play the aging agents in the 1990s, while Chastain, Worthington and Marton Csokas are the younger versions. Danish actor Jesper Christensen portrays the doctor with a cool rationality that makes him even scarier than your typical Nazi brute.

“The Debt,” from Focus Features, opens today across the U.S. Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Rick Warner in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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