Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Debt and the Theory of Chaos

"No matter what, the truth stays in this room."
To one unfamiliar with Chaos Theory, it might seem like chaos itself; many people are at least familiar with the phrase from Jurassic Park and the mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum): “Nature finds a way.” Chaos theory could be compared to an octopus with various branches of mathematics and science, all working together to create one “monster.” The Debt allows us to utilize several of those arms to understand what is going on, or, at least, to allude to what is going on. Not only are these techniques of chaos theory important to understanding the film (information, noise, redundancy) but for understanding other films (such as Contagion) and our own "information society" in which we live.
You may have thought the title of this post was about Washington D.C.
Three young Jews are on a secret mission to bring Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christiansen) to justice for “medical” crimes committed against Jewish prisoners in concentration camps during World War II: Rachel (Jessica Chastain in 1966 and Helen Mirren in the 1997), David (Sam Worthington in 1966 and Ciaran Hinds in 1997) and Stephan (Marton Csokas in 1966 and Tom Wilkinson in 1997) each contribute to the success of the mission. In the process of capturing Dr. Vogel to take him to stand trial for his crimes, Rachel and David fall in love but Rachel sleeps with Stephan and consequently gets pregnant. The three young Mossad agents (Israeli Secret Service) bring in the doctor, however, their plan at the train station goes wrong because "initial conditions" upon which the group depended do not go according to plan:
The failed plot at the train station reveals the dependency on "initial conditions" and how several little "unplanned" events changed the course of the escape: a man unexpectedly taking a break and noticing something wasn't right, Rachel leaving the group, the tranquilizer in Dr. Vogel's system wearing off sooner than expected, him honking the horn and alerting the guards, David waiting for Rachel, etc. All these items together add up to the Butterfly Effect in chaos theory: the changing of one instance changes everything else. Even if the only "unplanned" event in the train escape plot was that the man took his break, either they would have been noticed and caught or Rachel would have been left behind in East Berlin.
Rachel getting information when someone else enters the office: more chaos.
The reason this is important is because of Stephan's insistence, "No matter what, the truth stays in this room." Given that the train escape was such a catastrophic failure, how can he possibly expect four people (the escaped Dr. Vogel is the fourth) to keep silence about the truth and keep to the same story? Remarkably, it happens for thirty years, but then a crazy man in a Ukranian hospital starts telling everyone he's Dr. Vogel and it spooks Rachel, David and Stephan.
Nazi Dr. Vogel whom the agents must bring to justice.
Since The Debt is a spy thriller, and spies are out for information, the flow of information is essential (who knows what, what they do with the information and how it is used, how it is conveyed, etc.). The film utilizes sophisticated theories of information within the plot. Information theory is one of the “octopus arms” of Chaos theory yet, the most important information is the information being covered up and aspects of noise, redundancy and performances within performances help us to understand how the identity of an entire country and religion has been radically undermined by the telling of one bit of false information.
Stephan was in a car bomb explosion which put him in a wheelchair, yet there is a far greater symbolism to this: a car is a vehicle, and the "vehicle" propelling Stephan forward in his career was the "bomb" that three young agents captured and killed the infamous surgeon of Birkenau, a lie which now renders him "paralyzed" to be able to do anything about it.
The first skillful employment of information as an aesthetic is the story (which is a narrative, here in the very literal sense) of how the three agents captured Dr. Vogel and then, when Dr. Vogel was trying to escape, Rachel shot him dead. We are given this narrative at the release of Rachel's and Stephan's daughter's new book recording the events leading up to this important moment in Israeli history. Entering into Rachel's flashback, we then get what really happened: she didn't shoot Dr. Vogel, he escaped after beating her up and there was nothing she could do.
In this sequence, too, the car Rachel rides in represents the vehicle propelling her throughout life. She is not the driver, Stephan is (in the lie about killing Dr. Vogel), she's just in the backseat of the "conspiracy" but she's still in on it and reaping the benefits. Her glasses cover her eyes because she doesn't want anyone to know the truth and she doesn't want to "see" the truth anymore, only the lie; her black dress she wears is a mourning dress because they have "buried" the truth.
What is so artful about the way we learn the truth is the application of redundancy: we see events occurring with one ending, then we are given the exact same information to emphasize truth through quantity (both stories agree on this set of events) and then there is the divergence (for other examples, please see "redundancy" in How To Eat Art). Learning the truth through Rachel's flashback of those events, we ourselves are "flashing back" to the beginning of the movie when we summon our memory to compare the "new narrative" with the older one at the beginning and so, like all Israel and history, we too are being fed a lie and experience first hand what it feels like to receive false information.
Rachel learns about Dr. Vogel through the examination of photos of his victims and the information within his file. While Dr. Vogel is a doctor, who should help alleviate suffering and prolong life, his atrocities as a torturer and executioner graphically illustrates his how "perverse" (upside-down) he is.
There is another element of Chaos theory employed which is worth our attention: performance within performance. A Mandelbrot set is much like Russian Babushka Dolls, it has a large pattern repeated in smaller versions within it. In art, a good example is Shakespeare's play Hamlet: Hamlet has a troupe of actors act out the murder of Hamlet's father by Hamlet's uncle who happens to be in the audience, so it is a play within a play. Another example is in the Christopher Nolan's film Inception: there are dreams within dreams (please see my post Inception: Power, Revenge and Frustrated Staircases).
As Rachel and Stephan are "playing" Beethoven's Fur Elise on the piano, they are also "playing" each other and "playing" to be lovers (neither of them loves the other) and this unexpected affair they have results in their daughter Sarah and them getting married. Rachel represents Israel in its youth as a new country; Stephan symbolically represents Israel's un-wanted "marriage" to the West and their daughter Sarah (the new generation of Jews and Israelis) is a product of the "alliance" and the lie they tell.
In The Debt, Rachel's daughter Sarah is releasing a book detailing how the three agents "brought Dr. Vogel to justice," and Rachel is asked to read a selection from the book. She is reading publicly (a public performance) which shows us how Stephan, David and Rachel told everyone Dr. Vogel was shot and killed by Rachel (another performance because they are performing a lie, presenting false information repeatedly, living out something that did not really happen).There are other performances within performances: Rachel and David fall in love with each other even as their cover story is that they are husband and wife. Further, as husband and wife, Rachel visits Dr. Vogel in his office and Rachel's reason is that she's having problems conceiving.
David and Rachel leaving Dr. Vogel's office. The only time they have physical contact is pretending to be husband and wife after leaving the office when they put up this front by holding hands. David lets go of her hand but she stops and just looks at him. He turns and without a word, takes her hand again. This action blurs the lines between their performance and reality, their jobs and their desires, what they want and what they desire.
Rather than imagine Rachel in Dr. Vogel's examination chair, imagine that it is the new, young country of Israel (remember how much emphasis is placed on how young the three agents are, Israel itself was about that age at the time of this mission), and Israel--as a new, young country with an ancient, noble tradition--was also having problems conceiving of a "modern" identity, a "political" identity, and bringing a Nazi war criminal to justice was the way to "give birth" to a new generation of Jews and Israelites. When Dr. Vogel examines Rachel, he's not looking at her reproductive organs, this Nazi is looking at Israel's reproductive organs, giving an intimate exam to his hated enemy.
Rachel represents Israel, David is tradition and Stephan the alliance with the West.
The name "Rachel" is Hebrew for sheep; "David," of course, refers to the great King of the Jews and their long tradition of honoring him as a forefather; Stephan, on the other hand, means "crown" and actually refers to Christianity, the West (the first Christian martyr was Stephan). If Rachel, who is led like a sheep, is Israel and loves David but sleeps with Stephen who represents the Western Christian countries and has to marry him because of the child they beget together, we suddenly have a very intimate psychological profile of the birth of a country and its political regrets. A good "test" of this is that there are three different people playing the three agents in 1997 from 1966, instead of just taking the young group and aging them (like what they do with Dr. Vogel in 1997, it's the same man just aged). This important detail lets us know that what the agents were and represented in 1966 has totally changed in 1997. Rachel is a scarred woman (Israel's scar), Stephan is paralyzed (the alliance with the West is handicapped) and David is mentally disturbed and suicidal (his suicide in front of the truck decapitates him, symbolizing that King David is not an important role model as a head of state in Israel anymore, and everything King David stands for and represents).
David is Rachel's true love and she is his, and we should understand this in political terms of Israel "being true to itself" and it's needs at maintaining its identity as the Jewish nation, the descendants of King David in both political and ethnic orientation and how the disruption of that line of descent has "scarred" the Israeli identity, just like the scar on Rachel's face.
When the agents have Dr. Vogel hostage (a reversal from the Nazis holding the Jews hostage) surprisingly, it's Dr. Vogel who tells Rachel she's pregnant because she gets morning sickness. It's then Dr. Vogel who tells David that Rachel is pregnant with Stephan's child, which upsets David to no end, causing him to break a vessel of pottery; it's this vessel which Dr. Vogel uses to cut his ropes and slash Rachel in his escape. That vessel is the bloodline of Israel, it is symbolic of a person, and that it is David who breaks it--and David who has no heir, no child to continue his line--is what the Nazi uses to scar and disfigure Israel (Rachel).When Rachel finds Dr. Vogel at the hospital in the Ukraine, a mirror is broken with which Rachel stabs Dr. Vogel, he stabs her with scissors (in-between the shoulder and her heart, and then in her stomach), but she manages to stab a syringe loaded with a lethal injection into his back. It's befitting that this scene takes place in a hospital since this is where Rachel finds healing, and that a Nazi dies in a country where, in 1997, Communism was dying, so that "new life" from the death of the old could be obtained.
David (in 1997) and Rachel. He comes to see her and asks, "What if we could go back?" and she replies, "We can't go back," yet the complex symbolisms allow Rachel to do just that, which she does to "honor David."
The broken mirror is the shattered identity of Rachel (and Israel) when the truth comes out (the truth shatters the illusion of the lie) but she uses that to her advantage. Dr. Vogel, stabbing her between the shoulder and heart, is a graphic illustration of how he used Rachel to come between David (Rachel's heart) and her shoulder/arm (her strength which is the alliance with the West, Stephan). When he stabs her in the stomach with the scissors, that represents an abortion: a doctor with a pair of scissors stabbing a woman cannot be understood in any other terms. It's the abortion of what was "beget" from the fruit of the lie the three young agents told to the world. The injection which Rachel uses to stab Vogel in the back and kill him mirrors the injection he gave her to stimulate her ovarian follicles so she could conceive a child; Dr. Vogel's death is the "injection" of truth Israel needs to conceive a new generation of identity. That it's done "in the back" of Dr. Vogel emphasizes the retrospective (looking back) aspect of Rachel's ability to carry through the mission.
David celebrates his 29th birthday in 1966, so he was born about 1935, when Hitler announced that Germany would re-militarize, against the Versailles treaty. As the symbol of the ancient tradition and identity of the Jewish people--their culture and religion--David's love of Rachel maintains the "ancient" identity with the modern identity Israel has had to take on for its own political survival.
When Stephan persuades Rachel and David to "tell the lie," it's New Year's Eve and you can hear the people outside "counting down to midnight" and the birth of the new year, just as--at that very moment--Rachel agrees to the lie, the "birth of the new Israel" comes in with the new year, because it's an Israel that will have the "trophy" of justice against the war criminals who killed so many Jews and sought to wipe them off the face of the earth.
The three agents hold Dr. Vogel captive, yet they are in so much danger of being discovered in Communist, East Berlin, that the stress and pressure causes them to suffer; additionally, Dr. Vogel behaves like another doctor, Hannibal Lector, from Silence of the Lambs, by waging a "verbal war" upon his captors.
Something which disrupts information flow is noise--think of static on a radio station and how the interference disrupts the signal--noise causes us not to be able to hear the information coming through on the radio. An example within The Debt is when Rachel walks through the airport and the footstep noise is very loud compared to the silence of the airport, so the noise levels have been perverted, turned upside-down (the airport should be filled with noise). The reason a director does this, as in Contagion with director Soderbergh, is to let the audience know that they are not going to hear the message being given to them, there is too much disturbance from noise for us to be able to understand what the film makers want to tell us (please see Contagion: Bats and Pigs for more on noise).
Tom Wilkinson as Stephan, the one who got them to tell the lie, and the one who got Rachel to go back and "take care of it" for them, for Mossd and for Israel.
Just a few incidents worth mentioning: when David combs Rachel’s hair the night before they kidnap Dr. Vogel, it means there are no “entanglements” to their relationship at that point. The next day, however, Rachel will be pregnant with Stephan’s child and she will be entangled with him and unable to get out. In 1997, David walks and puts his coat over his arm, suggesting that he is "covering something up," and when he sees Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) he kills himself. Rachel packs her clothes and tries to get a drawer back into the chest but can't make it fit, just like the "lie" won't fit into reality any longer. In German, "Vogel" means bird; when he escapes, he "flies" from captivity. When the group returns to Tel Aviv and gets off the plane, the plane symbolizes another "bird" but one of man's making--like the lie they are telling. Rachel then goes to the airport and has to board a plane, representing that, despite what she told David about not being able to go back, that's exactly what she's doing.
Sam Worthington as David, who lost his whole family in the Holocaust and makes bringing Dr. Vogel to justice his whole life's pursuit. Not only does he represent the tradition of Israel, but also all those who died as a result of the Nazi war crimes against humanity.
Why would a film about the Israeli identity crisis utilize chaos theory to explain itself? There is order in chaos, there is order in unpredictable systems even as there is chaos in predictable systems. While it seems that events spiraled out of control and were utterly unpredictable, The Debt--with its highly skilled employment of information theory and symbols--provides us with a highly satisfying narrative that presents us with a terrible dilemma of a lie effecting decades of history and millions of people, and yet, a righteous and just ending is still obtained. Despite the betrayal, the lie, the debt, the sorrow and mistakes, there has also been rebirth and healing. Note that in the poster for the film below, Rachel's scar on her right cheek has been healed, and so, too, can Israel.