THE CHAMPAGNE SPY
by debbie lynn elias
The LAFF International Showcase and Documentary categories are indeed blessed this year with some incredible films, one of them being THE CHAMPAGNE SPY.
I love spy stories. I always thought I would have been a good Mata Hari. But after seeing THE CHAMPAGNE SPY, well I have my doubts. The price is higher than one realizes. One of the most intriguing films debuting in the International Showcase, this is the true story of Major Ze’ev Gur Arie, an Israeli military officer recruited by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, responsible for intelligence and counter terrorism activities. With its director reporting directing to the Prime Minister, the Mossad uses no military ranking and is deemed a civilian service although the majority of its personnel such as Gur Arie, are recruited from the Israeli military. Founded on December 13, 1949, at its height in the mid 80's, there were over 2000 personnel in its ranks. In the late 1950's and 1960's, the Mossad gained worldwide recognition finding and capturing Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, as well as directing missions for one of its “spies”, Eli Cohen, who was responsible for providing some of the most extensive intelligence materials in the history of the organization. And from 1957 to 1965, the Mossad directed missions in Egypt for one its most famous operators, Wolfgang Lotz aka Major Ze’ev Gur Arie.
Told through the eyes of Lotz’s son Oded Arie, who speaks breaking a 40 year silence about his father, as well as interviews with Lotz’s former colleagues and contacts and high ranking Mossad officials, the intimate details into the life of a spy and his family are at times chilling. Forced to live a double life, this is one instance where the “pretend” became the reality and then some, and where a cardinal rule of the spy world was broken - never let your family know the truth. Oded discovered at a very young age what his father’s “real” job was and due to Lotz’ extended absences made his own 8mm films during the brief spans of time he spent with his father. Filled with fear since age 12 after being told by an operative that his father was a spy but that he must never breathe a word about it to anyone as everyone’s life depended on it, Oded harbored not only the secret and the fear, but the loss of his father who soon couldn’t distinguish between reality and the champagne and caviar existence which began as a cover. Now, together with writer/director Nadav Schirman, Oded tries to fill in the blanks of his father’s life - and his own - with his films, photos, newsreel footage and interviews with Lotz’ former colleagues, contacts, friends, spies and even high ranking officials from Mossad.
Born in Mannheim, Germany in 1921 to a Jewish mother and German father, following his parent’s’ divorce and Hitler’s rise to power, Wolfgang Lotz and his mother emigrated to Israel where they settled in Tel Aviv and where Lotz adopted the Hebrew name of Ze’ev Gur Arie. After WW II erupted in 1939, now using his given name of Lotz, was recruited by the British military because of his German background, his stereotypical German appearance (tall, blonde, fair skinned) and the fact that he could speak German fluently. Stationed in Egypt, he joined an intelligence unit and spent his time interrogating German POWs. When the war ended, he returned to Israel and got involved in weapons smuggling for the Haganah.
By 1948, Lotz married an Israeli woman named Rivka and had a son named Oded. That same year he also joined the Israel Defense Forces where he remained through the 1956 Sinai War. But Lotz’ German nationality was put into service again when he joined the intelligence unit of Aman. Sent to Egypt because of his familiarity of the country he gained during WW II, his assignment was to gather intelligence by infiltrating the cliques of German scientists who were working on arms programs. With a cover story of being a German businessman who had served in the military in North Africa, was an ex-Nazi who had lived in Australia for 11 years breeding horses, in 1960 Lotz left his family behind in Paris - and in the dark - and went to Egypt. With a riding club as a cover and Aman financing his high societal ways, Lotz was welcomed with open arms into not only Egypt’s high society, but the German nationals and scientists on whom he was sent to spy. And Lotz became addicted to the glamorous high life.
But the mission started to go awry in 1961. Lotz’ handling was transferred to the Mossad. And in Paris, Lotz’s son Oded discovered his father’s true identity and profession. Things got sticky when Lotz met a woman named Waldraut while traveling on the train from Paris. Falling madly in love, he married Waldraut, despite being married to Rivka. However, even worse than being a bigamist, Lotz didn’t advise the Mossad or his operatives of this little turn of events. Although ready to pull the plug on the mission because of Lotz’ flagrant disregard for protocols and rogue conduct, the Mossad ultimately changed its mind and even went so far as to allow Lotz to involve Waldraut after she discovered Lotz’ true profession.
But in 1965, Lotz, Waldraut, several of their friends and some 30 other citizens of West Germany were arrested and charged with espionage to which Lotz confessed. Put on trial with Waldraut and 2 of their friends (who were completely innocent and ultimately exonerated), Lotz was facing the death penalty. But somehow, fate intervened and he was sentenced to life in prison and Waldraut, 3 years. And in 1968, just prior to the Six Day War, a now 20-year old Oded, hoping to have his father return to he and his mother and begin life anew, wrote Moshe Dyan begging for his father’s release.
The film is, in a word, riveting. As told by Oded, you quickly realize that the real world of espionage is nothing like the imaginary world of James Bond. Families are involved. A price is paid - a very high price. Life revolves around deceit and deception. Casualties of life abound and in this case, those casualties are Oded and Rivka, and to a degree, Lotz himself. Recreating and retracing Lotz’ own journeys through Germany and Paris, revisiting his old Paris apartment and the café where he learned of his father’s true identify, one’s heart goes out to Oded and the pain and sorrow he has carried his entire life.
Gaining the respect and trust of several senior Mossad officials and Israeli intelligence officers, first time director/writer Schirman sits down with each and gets their insight into the world of espionage, from both a professional and emotional standpoint, and in certain cases, as to Lotz specifically. Conversations with Lotz’ Paris operatives, Jacob Nachmias and Arie Sivan, shed light on Lotz’ psyche, his narcissism and his self-perceived levels of indestructability and delusions of grandeur. Particularly enlightening are Oded’s personal photos, films, letters from his father which continued through his incarceration and beyond, all of which are effectively blended and juxtapositioned with archival 16mm film of the Lotz trial in Cairo and his time in prison.
Three years in the making, and shot in France, Germany and Israel, the complexities and intricacies of the film are compelling and intelligently and cogently presented. A well chosen subtle soundtrack completes the experience by complimenting the visuals of the life of one espionage’s most renowned spies.
Mossad Chief Meir Amit has said that “the agents who return never really find their place and become restless.” To find out what ultimately became of Wolfgang Lotz and Oded, make sure you catch THE CHAMPAGNE SPY, screening June 23 at 7:30 p.m. at The Landmark and June 24 at 4:30 p.m. a Majestic Crest. Raise your glasses and toast this accomplished work.