The Champagne Spy (Meragel Ha-Shampaniya)

Courtesy photo
Nadav Schirman/Israel-Germany 2007

In the early 1960s when Oded Gur-Arie was about 13, his dad brought him along for a coffee with his boss. Gur-Arie knew his dad, Ze’ev, worked for the Israeli government in some capacity, which is why the family lived in Paris and didn’t see him for months at a time. But during this lunch, Ze’ev and his boss brought Gur-Arie into the secret: His father was an undercover agent for Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

If you think it’s astonishing that a man would choose to burden his child with the knowledge of his double identity, the story is only getting started. The Champagne Spy is a documentary so jaw-dropping you really wouldn’t believe it if it was a fictional film (although of course there is now one in the works). But Ze’ev’s double life – he was better known as Wolfgang Lotz – and the price other people paid for his duplicity deserved a straight documentary telling.

First-time director Nadav Schirman’s only previous experience was directing an exercise video for Orthodox Jews, but he’s expert enough to handle his subject with intelligence, thorough research and an obvious emotional rapport with Gur-Arie. Gur-Arie believes his father chose to tell him to make sure he’d keep his mouth shut, rather than risk him potentially and unwittingly blow his father’s cover. He also knows that Mossad wish they had better handled his family’s situation, which is why Mossad gave Schirman access to their archives. In an unprecedented move, they also allowed past and present Mossad agents to appear on camera (in some cases pixelated and under false names, but still) to discuss Lotz’s exploits.

While Gur-Arie and his mother were in Paris, Lotz was undercover in Egypt, at a time when hostilities between Egypt and Israel were escalating as fast as their nuclear race. Ex-Nazi scientists were shopping their skills to the highest bidders, so Lotz’s cover as a horse breeder and Nazi sympathizer – his German childhood meant he had the background and language skills – enabled him to integrate so thoroughly that no one dreamed he was an Israeli agent keeping an eye on these scientists. His cover was so perfect that when the Egyptians arrested six people in 1965 as West German spies, Lotz was one of them. Another person arrested was Waltraud Lotz, Wolfgang Lotz’s wife. Mossad had allowed, even enabled, their prize agent to commit bigamy. Worse, Gur-Arie learned about his father’s betrayal though an article on the arrests in the Herald-Tribune. Like I said, you couldn’t make it up.

“You had to choke on what you did,” one of the Mossad people says as he describes how one coped. The unprecedented access Schirman received enables almost everyone involved to speak freely; there’s a great sense of unburdening. Through remarkable research he found and interviewed – in addition to the Mossad agents – Gur-Arie’s friends in the Israeli community in Paris, Lotz’s friends before and after Egypt, Waltraud’s best friend, and a French-Egyptian lady who was innocently caught up in the spy ring accusations. But what kind of a man was Lotz? As a spy, he could live as he pleased. Was the fight to keep nuclear knowledge out of Egypt what drove him, or was it the chance to live a playboy life with Mossad paying the bills? Carefully reconstructed and seamlessly edited by Joelle Alexis, this documentary handles a delicate yet gripping real-life story with respect and attention to detail. We come as close as anyone could to understanding Lotz’s choices – and can clearly see why Mossad leaped at the chance to analyze their mistakes. I came out feeling glad that Gur-Arie was able at last not to choke on what his father did. And I can’t wait to see what Schirman does next. This film has won him an Israeli Oscar; if he continues to handle his subjects with such sensitivity and cleverness, exercise videos’ loss is cinema’s gain.

© 2007 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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