Dir. Nadav Schirman. Is. 2007. 90mins.
If the first requisite for a good documentary is a darn good yarn, then Nadav Schirman couldn't have asked for anything better than with The Champagne Spy, a tale of intrigue, espionage, love, betrayal, glamour and misery based on a true story that is begging to be told. That no one has told it before may well be because many of the people involved are still sworn to secrecy; even in its present form, plenty of the details are still left in the dark.
But whatever can be revealed about Major Ze'ev Gur Arie alias Wolfgang Lotz, an Israeli officer who looked like a German aristocrat and used this to spy for Israel in Nasser's Egypt, is enough to sustain a first class natural-born thriller. It offers not only a fascinating glimpse into the world of espionage but also a number of thoughtful reflections on the fate of even the best soldiers drafted into these shadow armies.
Since it was first unveiled at Tel Aviv's DocAviv in spring, Schirman has travelled extensively with his film; it is now solidly booked for festivals (including Hamburg and London) and the film-maker is already preparing a dramatic version for Collina Films in Germany.
A long interview with Oded Gur Arie, the son of the major, provides Schirman's documentary with its narrative backbone, complemented with extensive archival footage, home movies, and additional interviews with people who were close to Lotz in various capacities, be they friends of the families, contacts or superiors supervising his activities.
Born in Germany, raised in Israel and looking a bit like late German movie star Curt Jurgens, Gur Arie was sent with his wife, Rivka, and his 12-year-old son Oded to Paris in May 1961.
Several months later he was already on his own, in Egypt, leading a double life, working undercover for Israel while pretending to be a former Nazi officer, Wolfgang Lotz, on the run from the Allies. Operating a fashionable riding academy and leading the life of a leisurely socialite on a spending spree, he was accepted into the most exclusive Egyptian circles and became familiar with the most powerful figures in the regime.
In particular he gathered information about the German scientists who at the time were employed by Egypt's ruler, Gamal Abdul Nasser, on an ambitious project to develop weapons of mass destruction for a proposed attack on Israel.
That's only the beginning. Lotz then began spying with supreme confidence. He bigamously married a second woman, with the blessing of Mossad, was apprehended and sentenced to life imprisonment in Egypt, then released after the Six Days War in an exchange of prisoners.
He then became a sought-after celebrity back in Tel Aviv, using the name Lotz rather than Gur Arie, published his memoirs and lost his second wife to a brain haemorrhage. He married for a third time, left Israel for Germany, worked as a salesman in a department store, abandoned his wife and finally died penniless, aged 72, in 1993.
While the tale itself is eventful enough, with all its twists and turns, to fill its 90-minute running time to the brim, Schirman's film manages, thanks to skilful editing, to cover not only the exciting details of this pretty amazing career, but also take in its dramatic and upsetting effects as well.
For instance, the need for anyone working undercover to immerse himself without any reservations into a different identity is repeatedly pointed out, including by Lotz himself, in the course of the film. The clash between real life and the fiction created for his job, in Lotz's case, finally ended by his opting for the fiction which was far more appealing than reality.
Lotz confessed in a TV interview after his release from Egypt that he would have been delighted to resume immediately his former activities elsewhere, if only it would have been possible.
And there is more. By choosing this double life, Lotz made everyone around him ultimately miserable, including himself, as his son points out towards the end. There as also the greed of secret services, which often unwittingly sabotaged their own best interests by using various methods regarded as taboo by many spies. As John Le Carre would agree, there is very little the system does for an agent once he is burnt out.
July August Productions
Kobi Gal Raday
Carl Ludwig Rettinger