Sunday, September 25, 2011

Past, Present, and Pretense

The American author F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: ‘Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy’. Rachel Brener (played by Neta Garty), the protagonist in Assaf Bernstein’s debut feature Ha-Hov (2007), a Mossad agent, became a hero—to the Israeli Secret Service, in particular; and the people of Israel in general—way back in 1964, the moment she and her two fellow agents Zvi (Itay Tiran) and Ehud (Yehezkel Lazarov) emerged from an aircraft waving and smiling.  For the trio had brought to culmination a manhunt that had lasted fifteen long years by killing Maximilian Reiner (Edgar Selge) , alias ‘The Surgeon of Birkenau’, the biggest Nazi criminal apprehended by the state of Israel.

Thirty-three years later, the elderly Rachel (portrayed by veteran actress Gila Almagor, who played Eric Bana’s mother in Spielberg’s Munich [2005]), still very much a national hero, who has recently published her biography titled My Mission, receives the first minor jolt to her conscience when a member of a military troop to whom she is recounting her famous exploit asks her ‘How do you know you’re doing the right thing?’ 

This is because for over three decades now, Rachel has been harbouring a secret from the eyes of the world, much the same way she has been concealing a scar on her left cheek—a memento from the dreaded surgeon—with makeup. That deeply guarded secret now threatens to disrupt the veneer that she has so meticulously maintained since the moment she landed on Israeli soil alongside her two co-agents. Rachel suffers the second—more significant—jolt on the night of a party to celebrate the launch of her biography, when Zvi (Alex Peleg), now bound to a wheelchair, pays her a visit and hands her a newspaper clipping. The news report is about an octogenarian named Nikolai Bazorov, who is bedridden at a nursing home in a town not far from Kiev. Bazorov claims to be Maximilian Reiner.

It is quite apparent from the conversation between Rachel and Zvi that what is perceived by all and sundry to be their most famous accomplishment is nothing but a big, fat lie. To continue this charade, the truth about the claim made by Bazorov has to be found out. 

As the film effortlessly alternates between the 1960s and the 1990s, we find the younger versions of Rachel, Zvi, and Ehud in Berlin, preparing to set in motion the plan that has been entrusted on them. We find the ‘Surgeon of Birkenau’ is now an obstetrician. The same individual who had conducted unspeakable atrocities in the name of science on countless Jews and had sent them to their death is ironically running a clinic with his wife, where he aids in awakening lives growing inside wombs. 

While most Hollywood directors would have found it difficult not to give in to the temptation of showcasing at least some spying techniques and gadgetry, Bernstein eschews such gimmicks (except in one instance, involving a hidden camera) and builds up the tension, instead, through interactions and conversations, especially between Rachel and the ‘doctor’. In scenes reminiscent of Lewis Gilbert’s Operation Daybreak (1975), we find Rachel, Zvi, and Ehud getting acquainted with the former Nazi’s daily routine in order to determine where, when, and how they could bring their plan to fruition.

Even though the kidnapping takes place smoothly, unforeseen hitches arise in deporting Reiner back to Israel; and the trio is assigned the job to feed, shave, and keep constant vigil on their bound and gagged captive. But, soon enough they find out that even though years have passed since he committed his last ‘experiment’ on hapless Jews, Reiner still possesses a seething disdain towards the race. Moreover, the skilled surgeon has an uncanny knack of finding the raw nerve in each of the three Mossad agents; and is equally adept at manipulative mind games as he is with a speculum. As days pass by, and reasons beyond the control of Rachel, Zvi, and Ehud keep stalling Reiner’s deportation, their frustration begins to grow. Seizing this opportunity, the shrewd surgeon plays on his captors’ weaknesses, until the unthinkable happens.

Rachel has always held herself responsible for what happened on that fateful night. So, even though age is no longer by her side, she takes it upon herself to finish what she should have over three decades ago. But as she embarks on her journey to Ukraine, little does she know that life will yet again pull a surprise or two on her.

Winner of four Ophir Awards (the Israeli version of the Academy Awards), Ha-Hov’s basic storyline—that of a dreaded Nazi living amongst us—has already been touched upon by films like The Odessa File (1974), Marathon Man (1976), Tras el Cristal (1987), and Apt Pupil (1998), to name just a few. But Bernstein’s endeavour differentiates itself from these aforementioned films simply by offering a much broader perspective to the ‘identity’ factor. While other movies dealing with the same subject have focused primarily on unmasking a German war criminal, Bernstein has not only weaved in the dual identity element in each of his film’s primary characters, but has also depicted how horrific events during World War II continues to forge the identity of Israel as a nation. Being an Israeli himself adds that extra bit of authenticity in what he has depicted on celluloid. It also helps that none of his three chief characters exhibit even a semblance of ‘heroics’ that we are so accustomed to when watching a film involving ‘secret agents’. In fact, they are as human as they come—replete with all the usual frailties, faults, and failings.

Although the  history of cinema does present more than a few evidences to the contrary, it remains a fact that second-hand knowledge is often second-best to what has actually been experienced either at the personal level or as part of collective consciousness. And that is precisely why, the Hollywood remake of Ha-Hov, titled The Debt (2010) starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds might not only feel like an infructuous exercise, but one that will, in all probability, fail to touch a chord, because it runs the risk of also being labeled as ‘pretentious’.  

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