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East Berlin, The Movie

Updated July 27, 2011

From the 1948 spy movie Berlin Express to John Madden’s 2011 thriller The Debt, East Berlin has been a film destination for intrigue, espionage, and political tension. We take a look at how this European capital has changed in the decades since Berlin was divided after the end of World War II.

2011: The Debt
1948: Berlin Express
1948: A Foreign Affair
1950: The Big Lift
1961: One, Two, Three
1962: Escape from East Berlin
1965: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
1966: Funeral in Berlin
1966: Torn Curtain
1985: Westler
2003: Good Bye, Lenin!
2004: The Bourne Supremacy
2006: The Lives of Others
2011: The Debt

2011: The Debt

In John Madden’s The Debt, a trio of Mossad agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas) secretly takes up residence in 1960s East Berlin in order to track down a Nazi war criminal dubbed the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen). While the film was actually shot in England and Hungary, the spirit of East Berlin during the Cold War was essential to the story. Production designer Jim Clay worked hard to make sure Berlin and its wall “is not the iconic Berlin Wall that everyone came to know, but instead the block-and-concrete that was rather hastily thrown up during the period in the 1960s in which this part of the story is set.” In The Debt and other films, East Berlin remains an iconic location, a place whose changing meaning over time has served as a barometer for measuring the international political climate. And films, from those created after World War II up to The Debt, have continually reconstructed the place, both as a real historical location and as a powerful imaginative landscape. 




Focus Features at Comic-Con 2011

Updated July 24, 2011

We are on the ground at the world’s largest convention for comic book and popular arts aficionados. Here are some snapshots for the excitement of comicon 2011.

Comic-Con 2011
The Crowd at San Diego Comic-Con
San Diego Comic-Con Crowds
Booth Babes
Dragon Cart
Elijah Wood
Gladiator Women
Hoops & Yoyo
My Little Pony
Pink Battle Bear
Princess Leia
Sasha Grey
R2-D2 and C-3PO
Star Wars Car
Superman and the Green Lantern
Simon Legno and Adios
Wonder Women
The Ladies of Star Trek
Santa Yodas
Comic-Con 2011

© Nicole Butte

Comic-Con 2011

Comic-Con’s famous eye.




Nazis We Love to Hate

Updated July 20, 2011

In John Madden’s The Debt, a trio of Mossad agents go after a Nazi war criminal, dubbed the Surgeon of Birkenau, who’s hiding out in East Berlin in the 1960s. Played by Jesper Christensen, this character joins a list of Nazi villains going all the way back to 1939.

The Surgeon of Birkenau in The Debt
Franz Schlager in Confessions of a Nazi Spy
Fritz Marberg in The Mortal Storm
Franz Kindler in The Stranger
Madame Anna Sebastian in Notorious
Ilsa in Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS
Eduard Roschmann in The Odessa File
Dr. Szell in Marathon Man
Arnold Toht and Elsa Schneider in the Indiana Jones movies
Kurt Dussander in Apt Pupil
Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List
Karl Ruprecht Kroenen in Hellboy
Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds
Standartenführer Herzog in Dead Snow
Dr. Sebastian Shaw in X-Men: First Class
The Surgeon of Birkenau in The Debt

The Surgeon of Birkenau in The Debt

In John Madden’s The Debt, three Mossad agents (played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas) are sent on an undercover mission to go to East Berlin to capture the Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), who earned the moniker the Surgeon of Birkenau, and who is masquerading as the kindly Doktor Bernhardt. As with others tasked with giving a face to evil, Christensen’s job was not making the character any more horrible, but with making him believable. The Copenhagen-born actor explains, “The man is so terrible that I didn’t have to make the audience any more disgusted with him than they already are. What I needed to do was to bring out his dimensions, the humanity that he does possess, and the rationalizations that he has built around his past.” His performance, capturing simultaneously the man and the monster, highlighted the reason why Nazis make such great screen villains. Their ideology automatically assigns them villainy, leaving the actor to find that part – however perverted – of a humanity that makes them credible.




People in Film | John Madden

Updated July 12, 2011

Since the 90s, director John Madden has been known for bringing historical dramas to life, like his Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. But whether directing police or period pieces, he managers to capture powerful performances, as he does in The Debt.

John Madden | Paying The Debt
John Madden | Cops and Costume Dramas
John Madden | Finding Poetry in Period Dramas
John Madden | A Lovely Man
John Madden | Paying The Debt

John Madden | Paying The Debt

Based on Ha-Hov, a 2007 Israeli film, The Debt was initially slated to be directed by Matthew Vaughn, who scripted the movie with his writing partner, Jane Goldman. At a certain point, however, Vaughn had to focus on another project, his 2010 film Kick-Ass. That's when John Madden took over the job of helming this powerful thriller of three Israeli agents forced to revisit a mission from their past. From the very start, the highly respected English director fell in love with The Debt, recognizing in it a subtlety that is rare in genre movies and harks back to a different era of filmmaking. “It's a thriller, but it's an unusual one,” Madden told DVD Outsider. “Certainly my models were an earlier manifestation of that form, the Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor kind of realm... I was attracted by the opportunity to do two things at once: to tell a very good, suspenseful story but at the same time deal with a kind of psychological depth and complexity that you don't expect in that kind of film.”




People in Film | Tom Wilkinson

Updated July 12, 2011

While Tom Wilkinson may have originally intended to be a farmer, when he turned to acting, he worked just as hard to cultivate his craft. As such, audiences have reaped the rewards of his performances from stage to TV to films.

Tom Wilkinson | The Actor as Craftsman
Tom Wilkinson | An Accidental Actor
Tom Wilkinson | Sharpening his Skills on Stage
Tom Wilkinson | Bringing Complex Characters to TV
Tom Wilkinson | Turning Supporting Roles into Star Turns
Tom Wilkinson | In the Spotlight
Tom Wilkinson | The Actor as Craftsman

Tom Wilkinson | The Actor as Craftsman

In John Madden’s The Debt, Tom Wilkinson plays a man with secrets. The story takes place in two different time frames. In one, three Mossad agents  – David Peretz, Rachel Singer and Stephan Gold – embark on a 1960s covert mission to kidnap a Nazi war criminal living in East Berlin. In the second, the same three characters live with the secrets of that mission 30 years later. For Wilkinson, who plays Stephan Gold, that meant absorbing a myriad of factors – the director’s vision, the characters' secrets, the performance of the young Gold (played by Marton Csokas) – to create his character. To make Gold real, he needed first to stay true to the story’s prime question, as Wilkinson puts it, “can one be redeemed after the endless duplicity of being a secret agent?” But he needed not only to layer secret onto secret, but be faithful to another actor’s secrets. Working with his earlier self, played by Csokas, Wilkinson explains, “I later took a look at his scenes and worked further on the character with John. There was a certain continuity I was careful not to break.” With the precision of a watchmaker, Wilkinson built his character, displaying an attention to detail and craft that has been his trademark for decades.




People in Film | Sam Worthington

Updated July 11, 2011

From his rambling youth in Australia to his skyrocketed rise to fame after being cast in Avatar, Sam Worthington has been a man of action and emotion. In John Madden’s thriller The Debt, Worthington showcases all parts of his acting talent to play the conflicted Mossad agent David.

Sam Worthington | Tough and Tender
Sam Worthington | A Working-Class Actor
Sam Worthington | The Director's Choice
Sam Worthington | An Action Star with a Heart
Sam Worthington | Tough and Tender

Sam Worthington | Tough and Tender

John Madden’s The Debt shuttles back and forth between two different time periods. In the 1960s, three Mossad agents – David Peretz, Rachel Singer and Stephan Gold – are sent on a mission to East Berlin to capture a Nazi war criminal, and while everything doesn’t go as planned, the trio return to Israel as heroes. 30 years later, the same three agents suddenly are forced to pay for the secrets they left behind during that famous mission. The actors playing the older agents (Ciarán Hinds, Helen Mirren, and Tom Wilkinson) are mirrored by a younger, equally talented cast (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, and Marton Csokas). For the character of David, a passionate but awkward patriot, the filmmakers needed an actor who could be both focused and confused. As Madden explains, “David’s idealism becomes at risk and he doesn’t know how to handle that.” Long before Avatar turned Sam Worthington into a global name, Madden had seen the young actor in a small Australian film, Somersault, and recognized that he had a special quality: “Sam has this attractive, masculine, powerful presence but he also has a vulnerability…I felt that he could capture the contrasts of David.”




People in Film | Helen Mirren

Updated July 11, 2011

From playing a conflicted ex-Mossad agent in The Debt to the Queen of England, Helen Mirren pushes her craft. But rather than rest on her laurels, this grand dame of theater and cinema is, as fortune predicted, just reaching her prime.

Helen Mirren | The Right Actress for Any Role
Helen Mirren | Destined to Act
Helen Mirren | A Woman on Stage
Helen Mirren | Learning Her Craft on Film
Helen Mirren | Taking Charge on the Small Screen
Helen Mirren | Prophecy Fulfilled
Helen Mirren | The Right Actress for Any Role

Helen Mirren | The Right Actress for Any Role

In John Madden’s The Debt, Mossad agents David Peretz, Rachel Singer and Stephan Gold embark on a covert mission in the 1960s to kidnap a Nazi war criminal living in East Berlin. Only when we revisit the same trio 30 years later do we come to understand that the present owes more to the past than anyone suspects. And while this story shuttles between two time periods and among three different characters, the older Rachel Singer – who is played by Helen Mirren – is, in many ways, the film’s moral center. As Madden, who previously directed Mirren in an episode of the gritty detective miniseries Prime Suspect, explains, “Here’s a role which required her to intimate the wounds and the corrosive effect of events suppressed over 30 years. The tension and pain of a decision made long ago are evident; she literally bears a scar from what happened back then. All this has to come across amidst the pace and excitement of a thriller.” Of course, considering Mirren’s remarkable career, it’s impossible to image a role she could not shine in.