From Israel With Love
When John Le Carré admitted several years ago he was a longtime agent of Britain's intelligence services, the bestselling spy-thriller writer explained his involvement in the sort of terms you’d expect from someone who had for decades brilliantly captured boys’ … Read More
When John Le Carré admitted several years ago he was a longtime agent of Britain's intelligence services, the bestselling spy-thriller writer explained his involvement in the sort of terms you’d expect from someone who had for decades brilliantly captured boys’ spirits with a romanticized vision of espionage. "I really believed at last that I had found a cause I could serve," Le Carré, then 69, said in a TV documentary, The Secret Centre. "I also longed for the dignity which great secrecy confers upon you." If great secrecy can confer dignity, it can also reap a personal harvest of great emotional wreckage. Such is the lesson of The Champagne Spy, a new documentary about one of the Mossad’s most infamous operations. The setting is the Middle East in the early 1960s. Egypt’s ambitious leader Gamal Abdel Nasser is luring Nazi scientists to Cairo to facilitate the tyrant’s desire to build a nuclear weapon’s program. At around the same time, a dashing millionaire playboy named Wolfgang Lotz (rumored to be an ex-SS officer) arrives in Egypt and sets up a riding school and horse farm that quickly becomes the social nexus of both Egypt’s elite and their new Nazi imports. Lotz’s real name is Major Ze'ev Gur Arie. He's a Mossad recruit who was commander of an Israeli infantry company in the 1956 Sinai campaign. Arie’s covert identity – which gives him access to a tantalizing mix of women, wealth and intrigue – proves intoxicating, and ultimately, tragic for the Israeli wife and child he left behind.
That child, Oded Arie, finally chose to share his story (and never-before-seen family footage) with filmmaker Nadav Schirman, whose documentary is winning awards and impressing audiences on the film festival circuit.
I interviewed Nadav (a friend I met years ago during my stint at the Jerusalem Post) as he was getting ready to fly to California for the Los Angeles International Film Festival.
Did you grow up in a family with secrets?
If there were secrets they were well-kept.
I ask because for all the dramatic exceptionalism of the story, all the elements that might appeal to a spy fanboy’s doofus wonderment, Wolfgang Lutz seems emblematic of a certain segment of the post-holocaust generation, particularly those from Israel – the dysfunction borne out of a festering underbelly of familial secrets and suppressed memories, men of great resource simultaneously crippled by their unaddressed emotions, women forced into great sacrifices in the name of country and children, and so on.
For Lotz, it was even worse than what you describe. He was born in Germany in 1921. His father was a gentile, a theatre director, his mother a Jewish actress. As Hitler seized power in 1933, Lotz's father killed himself and the desperate mother emigrated to Palestine with her son.
She dumped her son in a boarding school (Ben Shemen, with Peres and such) and tried her luck on the Habima stages. An utter narcissist obsessed with her interrupted acting career, she rarely visited him. That's when he started to love horses.
Lotz, a German immigrant, was never quite totally a Sabra (native Israeli). His friends in the Hagana didn't trust him completelyhe seemed like an outsider with his Aryan looks, European demeanor and German-tinged accent. That's maybe why his military career stalled and he left the army at 40, frustrated and of course ripe for the Mossad boys to snatch him up.
Speaking of the damage secrets can wreak, you screened this in front of a group of Mossad agents. Describe to me what happened. It must've been fascinating to see their reactions.
We screened the film, and afterwards I sat on a panel with the former Mossad psychologist whose job was to evaluate candidates and also treat all psychological hardships that come with the jobthe loneliness, the shock of alternating identities and returning home after a mission.
Imagine, you’ve been 5 years undercover, with an unlimited expense account, living high on adrenaline and adventure. Then, suddenly, you’re in a small Tel Aviv apartment and your wife is screaming at you to change the diapers. It's a tough transition. In the movie, you see how Lotz did not handle the transition well and suffered a tragic end.
It’s hard to fathom the lives these people lead. On the panel, there was also a former agent who was captured in Iraq, tortured and imprisoned for 10 years. He talked about how it’s really true that everyone talks in the end. He said that the decisive moment during his interrogation and torture was when the Iraqis staged his hanging. They forced him to stand on a stool with a noose around his neck for 20 minutes. He thought he was going to die; he had already made his peace. That's just a crazy situation.
At the premiere screenings in March at the DocAviFilm Festival in Tel Aviv, about a quarter of the audience was Mossad or former "Office" (that's how they call it, "the Office"). After the panel, on my way out, I was accosted by dozens of former agents who all wanted to thank me for the film. They were open and talkative, going against everything that governs their professional life. The agents’ responses to the film were touching. It gives them a chance to talk about their bottled up emotions, discuss the personal price they paid for their service.
Jews developed a mythology about the "elite" status of certain Israeli institutions. After being herded en masse to our extermination like helpless kittens, it was a comforting, even necessary, delusion to think of, say, the IDF as invincible or the Mossad as an almost-supernatural gang of Jewish James Bonds. I, personally, reveled in the aggrandizement as a child, reading every military book, listening to every magnificent tale of heroism told by my father and his friends. And I believe it made me stronger, prouder, more confident than my American Jewish peers raised on the nebbishness of Woody Allen.
The deconstruction of those mythologies at the hands of post-Zionist literature, the latest Lebanese war, and movies like yours is a difficult phenomenon to assess. On a nostalgic, personal level I fear what it means for Israel. I'm not suggesting these stories not be told, that agitprop and myth win out over truth. It is healthy, a sign of maturation. What I'm curious about is how it affected you personally. Was it emotional knowing you were part of this effort at deconstruction? Do you think the mythology is indeed dead, and is that a good thing?
Good question! I approached the whole spy thing impregnated with James Bond impressions, too. I mean I always dreamt of being a spy. I grew up all over the world. My dad was a diplomat, and as a kid, we went to all these cocktail parties and embassy functions, which where fertile ground for my fantasies.
What I discovered through the making of the film is two things. One, as you can see from Lotz's story, being an agent is a lonely and confusing job at best. The excitement, adrenaline and glamorous lifestyle seem now to be a thin veil for the grey and lonely work of information gathering. The second thing, which even took me by surprise, is that the Mossad peopleall those around Lotz's operational unit who I’ve metare like a family. They were once a bunch of idealistic, kind, good hearted Zionists who’ve slowly and sadly become realists. I wish they ran the country.
These are the people who built the myth with their own hands and laid the foundation for Israel. I discovered that what they had and my generation lacks: blind faith and real heartfelt patriotism. Everything has changed. Patriotism has morphed into individualism and opportunism. We have always wanted to be, after all, a Western country. Today you can apply to "the Office" via the web. Just send in your resume. That's says a lot about what changed. But so should it ? No? Who knows?
Sounds like you’re not terribly optimistic about the changes that have taken place.
Real love for your country is hard to replace. Sitting in his olive grove near Rishon Le’Tzion, I talked to Jacob Nachmias, Lotz's former Paris operative. We were under the olive trees that his father had planted in the 1920s when it was just fields all around. Jacob fought in every single Israeli war since 1948, climbing in rank, then specializing in intelligence, and eventually dedicating his life to the country he had helped build. For a moment, talking to him, I really felt close to him, to the land, and to a history that part of my lineage as an Israeli.
And then I left Nachmias's grove, and where there were once fields, there are now highways, industrial parks, shopping malls, noise, pollution.
There is a wrenching moment in the film when Oded passes summary judgment on his father's life with the chilling words, “He hurt everyone close to him.” In the movie Munich, Steven Spielberg used the emotional price paid by the Israeli agents as a way to deliver a political message about violence’s ceaseless cycle. Is there a message you’re trying to deliver?
No message except for the one that each person takes home with him. I hope never to be as didactic in my filmmaking as you suggest. A film is more of an exploration, a window onto another world.
How did you find the project?
The project found me. As always, no?
A friend gave me an old book, The Champagne Spy, which we're actually now adapting into a feature screenplay. Anyway, it was Lotz's exploits in Cairo written by himself. Just the name of the author turned me on: Wolfgang Lotz! What a name! After reading it, I said "This can't be true. The man was a real life James Bond: Cairo, horses, parties, women, missiles in the desert…”
Then one day, I’m sitting next to the pool where my son is taking swimming lessons. Next to me, there’s an older man and he asks me what I do. I tell him I’m trying to make a film about Wolfgang Lotz.
"Oh yeah?" The old man perks up. "How's it going?"
Not good, I said. The man is dead and I can't find any family he may have left.
"Maybe I can help you," he says. I give him my number, not really thinking much of it.
Then, two weeks later I get a phone call from the man. He said: "The man you’re trying to find is Oded Gur Arie. He’s Lotz's son. He's coming to Israel next week. His number is so and so." Beeeep. He hangs up.
Then I met Oded, and he tells me his father told him he was a spy when Oded was only 12 and that he never told anyone that, or anything else about his experience, until today. And then! Then, Oded shows me the old 8 millimeter videos he had shot of his dad's secret visits to Paris. That’s when I knew the film had chosen me.
Were there any negative reactions to the film in Israel?
Not yet. People love it here. The film is nominated for "Best Feature Documentary" in the Israeli Academy Awards and in the Israeli Documentary Forum.
Israeli film seems to be experiencing a golden moment. Any explanation?
Israeli films are winning major awards in every single festival this year (Berlin, Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes). I think the work of the Israeli Film Fund, the work of the three or four film schools and of the L.A.-Tel Aviv partnership programs are paying off. We’ve got a new generation of talent and it’s going to be exciting to see what will be produced in the next few years.