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Film / The Debt 1999

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"You have till tomorrow to get the money."
The Debt (Polish: Dług) is a 1999 drama film by Polish director Krzysztof Krauze, starring Robert Gonera, Jacek Borcuch and Andrzej Chyra. The movie, based on real events, tells the story of Adam Borecki (Robert Gonera) and Stefan Kowalczyk (Jacek Borcuch), young up-and-coming businessman in a newly capitalist Poland of the early 1990s whose promising careers go south once they come across Gerard Nowak (Andrzej Chyra), a shady "enterpreneur" who starts harassing the two over a debt they never even took in the first place, effectively ruining their whole lives in the process. Adam and Stefan are desperate to get rid of the mobster and will do so at any costs, even if it means killing him and be given 25-year long jail sentences.
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The movie won critical praise when it came out and is remembered till this day as one of the better, if not the best films of the 1990s Polish cinema, as well as the best ever directed by Krzysztof Krauze. It was also highly influential, effectively clearing the way for the protagonists' Real Life counterparts to be granted amnesty in the 2000s, although the decision was rather controversial since the movie was Very Loosely Based on a True Story.

Not to be confused with an Israeli movie sharing its English title.


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  • Alas, Poor Villain: Shorty, Gerard's bodyguard, seems more dumb than actually evil to the core, like his boss. His death scene in which he desperately begs for his life may account for something close to a Tear Jerker.
  • Audience Surrogate: Admit it: you wouldn't know what to do in such a situation either, would you?
  • The Bad Guys Are Cops: A brief if important scene has Adam at a police station asking that the police arrest Gerard over harassing himself and Stefan. The police officer questioning him not only doesn't seem the least bit interested in what she is hearing but she flat out tells him that the only thing they could do is to lock up Gerard for forty-eight hours which Adam knows well would pretty much seal their doom. And so, they end up taking matters in their own hands.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: Gerard points his gun to Stefan's head getting ready to fire. Cut to another perspective with the characters off-screen and the gunshot heard in the distance, only to turn out Gerard deliberately missed Stefan's head as he's more valuable to him alive if properly intimidated.
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  • Big Bad: Gerard Nowak, as trustworthy and charming as he seems at first, is a despicable asshole who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Threatening his former friend to have his girlfriend raped? Waving an infant baby outside a window in front of a terrified mother? That's just daily routine for this guy. Let's just say that when Adam brutally murders Gerard in the end, he's got the entire audience rooting for him.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Gerard, although the word "bitch" is probably the understatement of the century.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Let's recap: Gerard and Shorty are dead and the "debt" case is closed, however Adam and Stefan both go to jail for 25 years. They went through hell and broke up with their respective partners and while they reunite at the end, Adam already lost his unborn baby when he couldn't support his pregnant wife due to Gerard's harassment.
  • The Brute: Shorty, Gerard's bodyguard, released from prison just a week before he is introduced to our heroes. Every once in a while Gerard is seen with some other mooks who display a similar level of intelligence.
  • Dirty Coward:
    • Tadeusz, the most recent victim of Gerard's "debt" intimidation technique, pretends to break his leg just so he doesn't get to take direct part in whatever Adam and Stefan have in store for Gerard and his bodyguard Shorty once they capture them. His game is immediately seen through by Adam though.
    • Stefan choosing to fly the coop in order to avoid doing jail time can be excused. What can not be excused is him leaving his fiancée behind (pretending to be going abroad just for one day) even though he has no guarantee there will not be mobsters willing to avenge Gerard's death that would go after her.
  • Dub Name Change: The names of several characters are turned into their Western counterparts in the official English translation of the movie (for example, Stefan becomes Steve). Consequently, the translation sticks to a single variant of any given name, ignoring the potentially confusing dimunitive forms (such as "Adaś" for Adam or "Tadek" for Tadeusz) that are otherwise omnipresent in the movie and, in fact, the entire Polish language.
  • Frameup: In order to intimidate Adam, Gerard forces him to leave his fingertips on a knife that was used to kill a man so that if Adam ever tried to break free of Gerard's grip, he would be the only suspect in a murder case.
  • Give Geeks a Chance: To some degree, with Stefan. While not overly dorky, when compared to the strong-willed Adam, he comes off as much less manly and mature, prone to acting without thinking and lacking initiative. And yet, it's him who gets the model-looking Jola for a girlfriend whereas Adam settles for less than stunning Basia.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: We get no close up of Adam sawing off Gerard and Shorty's heads with a shovel.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: In the movie, Adam and Stefan are just a pair of young businessmen with much enthusiasm and little experience in the harsh realities of the post-communist Poland, making them easily relatable to the audiences. Their Real Life counterparts were much more shady characters who didn't lose sleep over tax evasion and other ways to avoid the officials if it meant they could save some cash and their reluctancy to go the police immediately after being threatened by the mobster was partly because of their concerns over being held accountable for those offences.
    • One of the most controversial aspects of the case was the allegedly excessive brutality in which Adam's Real Life counterpart murdered the mobster's bodyguard. In the movie, the two are killed within seconds, although, much like in reality, their heads are also cut off their bodies in order to make the police believe they are just victims of a gang war.
    • This raises some issues concerning the movie's closing card that states both Adam and Stefan were given 25-year long sentences for murdering Gerad and Shorty. Considering that the movie fails to portray any criminal action on the part of the two protagonists aside from the murder, which itself is carried out swiftly and without excessive pain and Adam actually gives himself and Stefan up on his own volition when the case is still fresh, the viewer is left wondering what exactly caused them to be given such harsh sentences.
  • Hypocrite: Tadeusz is furious at Adam and Stefan when he finds out that the two murdered Gerard and Shorty although he was the first one to ever suggest that violence was the only way they could deal with the mobsters.

  • Manipulative Bastard: Gerard can be as charming as a daisy when he wants to get something. For instance, when he's in need of information on Adam's whereabouts, he goes to see his pregnant wife in hospital, ironically claiming that it is him who owns money to Adam and just feels guilty about not being able to pay him back.
  • Manly Tears: Adam doesn't cry when he has to give up dreams of owning a scooter business and not even when he has to face the threat of constant beating every single day. But his wife miscarrying the baby due to him not being able to be there for her is enough for him to reach the breaking point.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: The two protagonists accuse each other of doing this all the time:
    • While you can hardly blame Stefan for it, the truth is he is the direct reason this whole mess started at all as it is him who first knew Gerard and had a reason to talk to him in the mall. Just for being his business partner, Adam suffers even more at the hands of Gerard, losing his unborn baby. Then we have Tadeusz who shelters Adam only for Stefan to be forced into disclosing this information to Gerard and Shorty who arrive at Tadeusz's place when Adam isn't there and use the opportunity to make Tadeusz another one of his victims.
    • Adam is pissed off when he finds out that Stefan actually tried to pay off Gerard as he is perfectly aware that this only encourages Gerard to keep on harassing them to get even more money.
    • Adam informs the police about him and Stefan killing Gerard and Shorty and the two end up getting 25 years, the harshest a Polish court could proclaim in the early 1990s, between abolishing the death penalty and before introducing life in prison. In other words, they could just as well try their best to evade the police for as long as possible since things couldn't get worse anyway.
  • Offing the Mouth: The main reason why Gerard ends up dead rather than just crippled for life is that he chose to make empty threats to Adam, thus reaching the limits of the latter's patience.
  • Off with His Head!: Gerard and Shorty are given this treatment after they die so that the police might connect their killings with those of the recent past in which the Russian mafia was involved.
  • Opportunistic Bastard: Tadeusz. He pretends to break his leg when he suspects that Adam and Stefan might do something jail-worthy to Gerard and Shorty. Later on, when confronted with the possibility of arrest, he declares willingness to meet the others in a park to agree on what they will tell the police after which he wastes no second before flying off to Copenhagen in order to avoid being tried for his participation in double homicide, leaving Adam and Stefan to fend for themselves.
  • Ruritania: While averted, since the creators are Polish themselves, Poland of the early 1990s sure looks like a crappy place to live, what with gang wars and harassment behind every corner. To be honest, to some degree that was what the country looked like during that time, as well as virtually any other post-communist country in Eastern Europe.
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: Just to think that if that one mopper cleaner at the mall didn't make the floor all slippery, Gerard wouldn't have fallen to the ground, thus not attracting Stefan's attention and consequently the two would never have a conversation, with Stefan and Adam free to pursue their dreams of scooter business and Gerard off to harass somebody else entirely. Made even Harsher in Hindsight when you consider that Gerard doesn't really seem to recognize his former neighbor Stefan until the latter specifically points thet out so that even if Gerard himself ended up actually noticing Stefan, chances are he would just ignore him.
  • Translation Convention: In the English subtitles, the few times that money amounts are given in Polish zloties rather than American dollars, the translation chooses to render the amount in question in dollars anyway. That kind of backfires as the subtitles' exchange rate is set at $1 for about 3.50 Polish zloties in accordance to the one in 1999 when the movie was released (and which has been kept relatively stable until today) even though at the time the movie takes place it was much lower than that.
  • Trouble Entendre: Throughout the movie, Gerard keeps insisting that there is a debt that Adam and Stefan owe him even though the two expressed only an initial interest in his assistance and rejected it when they found out how ridiculously expensive it would be. Truth in Television, actually, as this was the common practice of mobsters in Poland during the early 1990s since according to the law you would get a much lighter sentence for trying to enforce paying a nonexistent debt than if you just flat out tried to extort money out of somebody.
    • The debt façade looks even more absurd when you remember that Gerard sets up a random $1,000 as a daily interest rate. Just to put it in a perspective, in 1995 it took an average Pole about four months to earn as much.
  • We All Live in America: Everybody pays in American dollars rather than zloties. Justified since in the early 1990s, when the movie is set, the Polish currency (as well as pretty much every other in the post-Soviet bloc) experienced a period of inflation that did not come to a close until mid-decade and so much of business was made in dollars.
  • Work Off the Debt: Sadly, you don't get off the hook that easily when Gerard Nowak is involved.
  • Villainous Breakdown: When Gerard realizes that the Adam and Stefan are about to seriously cripple him at the very least, he starts deperately trying to plead with Stefan to stand up to Adam. Doesn't work.
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