And I knew nothing of the film other than it was directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) and was starring Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) and Tom Wilkinson (one of my favorite actors in anything he does from “Shakespeare in Love” to “Michael Clayton”). So I walk in with great expectations. The film? “The Debt”, a story of retribution and remorse. In 1966 three Mossad Secret Agents go into East Berlin to capture a Nazi war criminal, the ‘Surgeon of Buchenwald’ with the plan to bring him to justice in Israel. Simple story. Of course things go wrong (it wouldn’t be a good story if they didn’t) and the story becomes more about these three young Jewish agents and their sense of honor, integrity and willingness to live with a lie in order to protect their own reputations.
As I’m watching the film I’m aware of the following: Great cast all giving strong performances. It’s a powerful story. We’re in the hands of a strong and confident director. Great cinematography (Ben Davis), compelling music (Thomas Newman). So, why was I never involved? Why was I never engaged emotionally?
After the film, in the lobby, a friend says to me, “I got tired of those long lens close-ups” and I thought ‘wow, he really disconnected’. I told him I wasn’t emotionally engaged or involved and he said, “ahso” as if I had given him the key to the problem.
But it wasn’t until later when I was sitting with another friend that it clicked with me. “The Danger of Assumption”. This is a catch phrase that I stumbled upon years ago while teaching directing. I recall saying, ”Don’t assume that the audience knows what you know. Don’t assume that the audience thinks what you think. Don’t assume the audience feels what you feel.” It is your job as the director to insure that we have access to the information and experience we need (whether it comes through the dialogue, behavior, flash back, a look or whatever) which will give us a foundation for those thoughts and feelings. And that’s what “The Debt” didn’t do. That’s what was missing.
To be more specific:
Story: Don’t assume that just because you have three young Jewish agents searching for a Nazi war criminal who performed experimental surgery on helpless Jews during the Holocaust that I am going to be passionately engaged in their pursuit. I’m sorry to say this, but, we’ve been there before, we know the territory. We are not numb to it, we’re eager to be engaged in a new way. We want new insights, new agendas, new personal risks and stakes. We want something rich and textured to add to our Holocaust film experiences.
Characters: Three Jewish agents taking great risks to capture the ‘Surgeon of Buchenwald” and bring him to justice. And by the end of the film I still don’t know why. I know that this man needs to be brought to justice. I get that. But I have no idea why these three young agents, collectively or individually, feel so driven to accomplish this task. No one else knows that they are doing this (this is made clear later in the film) so they are on their own. This is a personal mission.
This point is crucial. How do you expect me to get emotionally involved in your characters if you don’t let me know why they are doing what they are doing? The power of storytelling is that you can bring the audience deep inside your characters where we can feel what they feel, know what they know. The young woman (played by Jessica Chastain and then by Helen Mirren 30 years later) is our protagonist. And for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why she was so compelled to put her life at risk in order to bring this man to justice. I don’t know how much of it was political, how much personal, how much professional. I don’t know if she was coerced by one of the other two agents. Since this operation was a secret there was clearly no one outside who asking or forcing her to do this. So, I’m intrigued. I’m curious about her. But I am told nothing. I don’t know if this act is intended to give her life meaning and purpose. And the same holds true of the other two (male) agents. While I’m watching the film I’m trying to figure it out. And after the film is over, I’m still trying to figure it out.
So, during the film when the evil Dr. Vogel escapes and our three agents are faced with the fact that they failed, they inform each other (and us) quite clearly that “there are only four people that know about this operation.” The doctor and the three of them. And, clearly, the doctor’s not going to talk, he’s just going to go back into hiding. And our three agents are now worried about what others will think. Now, understand, this is a key moment in the story. A major turning point. And I’m thinking, “Don’t say anything. It didn’t work out. You did your best. You’re fine. Just move on.” But they concoct a lie saying that Rachel managed to kill Dr. Vogel and they disposed of the body. This is another major turning point in the story. The entire film hangs on this lie. I understand that. What I don’t understand at this point is why. Why do they make this choice? I know little about these three people, individually, but I do know that there is no compelling reason for them to lie except perhaps if they are doing this for the glory, the accolades, or the validation. But, that’s me, guessing. That’s me filling in the Black Hole of Assumptions.
Point. It would have been nice to know what each of these three was expecting personally form the successful completion of this task. I would have loved to know why they were doing it, what was at stake for them personally, professionally, or politically … anything.
Character Arcs: You can’t have a character arc if I am kept in the dark about who the character is at the beginning of the story and at those key moments, turning points, in the story. If I am guessing or riding on an assumption, then when there is an apparent change of character (like the decision to lie) then I will now assume that perhaps my original assumptions were wrong. That’s the way my brain works. But, if I know the inner workings of each character clearly, then when there is a change (like the decision to lie, or later in the story the decision to reveal the lie) then I don’t question my original assumptions. I now know that I am experiencing a dramatic change in the character. And that is why I came to see the film in the first place!
The Danger of Assumptions. Don’t assume anything. Err on the side of clarity. Better to have the audience think, “I get it, I get it” rather than be stuck in the thought of “I don’t get it.” Don’t leave us with the task of putting the pieces together so that we can figure out what they were doing and why. When you do that we are struggling with making sense out of the story. That is not what you want. Leave us with the pain and pleasure of having gone through every emotional twist and turn, choice and change within the characters so we are left with trying to make sense of the wonders and complexities of the human condition.