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The Champagne Spy

I have never known a spy. But I do know the son of a spy, and it is his story as much as his father's that suffuses The Champagne Spy, an intellectually challenging and emotionally gripping film. No, this is not yet a big hit. But, given the wider attention our culture now gives to documentaries (and in ordinary theaters, no less) this one is bound to be a success--certainly among intelligent moviegoers--talked about, argued over, even taken to one's dreams ... or nightmares.

The Champagne Spy is an emotionally laden human drama about father and son, husband and two (simultaneous) wives, and, in the end, a great act of bravery that made and changed history. The setting is the Middle East in the early through mid-'60s, a perilous time for the state of Israel, with its neighbor Egypt led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ambitious and reckless tyrant who aspired to be king of the Arab roost and thought one way of doing it was to nuke the Jewish state. Yes, history does repeat himself. This ambition was more than plausible: Egypt had already used chemical weapons against another Arab state, Yemen. And Nasser had embarked on the great atomic search by luring to Cairo Nazi scientists who had been in this race before, for Hitler.

Israel was intent on stopping the venture, and it sent a German-born Jewish Mossad agent, Wolfgang Lotz, to Egypt to get as much intelligence as he could on these physicists whose game, frankly, was murder. Oh yes--one more fact: Though he was Jewish, Lotz was not circumcised. He could move easily in any social circle. His parents had probably, in some dim way, anticipated the horrors that were to befall the Jews of Europe, and they protected their son even it meant violating a 4,000-year-old command.

Lotz arrived in Cairo with a great deal of money, with false documents attesting to his Nazi past, and with a knowledge of horses, which he would now breed in Egypt. He was alternately taken for a Wehrmacht captain in Rommel's Afrika Korps or a lieutenant in the SS. He was a man full of charm, the kind mustered by individuals leading a false life. The film, built on surprisingly sharp home movies, toxic memories, and deep reflections, vibrates with historic and personal intensity.

But what about the son whom I met--through a mutual friend in Tel Aviv in 1970--named Oded Gur-Arie (it means Oded the lion's cub). Having carried the burden of this life-and-death secret for so many years--and what a secret!--he was quite open about his past: how he and his mother had lived in Paris during his father's leave of absence from the real world; how they had all met furtively from time to time; how he had found out that his father had been arrested in Cairo (seeing the news on the front page of a Parisian newspaper at a street kiosk), and so on. Oded is the star of this movie, because he has come to grips--without self-pity or self-importance--with his father's loyalty to a cause and his perfidy to his wife and child. The rampant lion is not so fierce. His is an utterly honest rendition.

But what about this perfidy? The brilliantly complex director, Nadav Schirman (this is his first full-length film) can handle the most subtle and intricate matter vividly. And the most intricate theme in this movie is about how someone leading someone else's life remains honest to himself. The fact is, he doesn't. Or, rather, he becomes dishonest to others.

Schirman has pieced together the "other" marriage--the one to the second wife, a German woman, and it too somehow comes alive--and the lady is plain, though loyal to Wolfgang. Of course, Wolfgang did not tell his real wife, Rachel, that he had married someone else. And he did not tell the Mossad, either. Oh, another thing: He did not tell the Mossad that he had begun to send letter bombs to the German scientists in an effort to hasten the success of his task, which was ultimately to get them and their dainty wives to leave. Probably to Paraguay or some other Latin American hideaway, maybe with some help from the remnant Nazi rescue squad in the Roman Catholic Church.

In any case, Wolfgang's freelancing on both personal and espionage matters was recognized by the Mossad and other security institutions of the Israeli state. What is utterly remarkable and unprecedented is that Schirman (and maybe Gur-Arie) has persuaded people in authority, then and now, to speak about their dark world--and speak they do, I believe, honestly and reliably.

Lotz was arrested in Cairo as an Israeli spy. The German government, by agreement with Israel, confirmed that he was a German national. The Egyptians, whether they believed the tale or not, accepted the Bonn version, likely to save themselves the embarrassment of having to admit that an Israeli Jew had penetrated so deeply into their defense establishment.

How did the drama end? After the Six Day War, Lotz and his wife were exchanged for 4000 Egyptian prisoners-of-war, including nine generals--not exactly an even deal. But this was not the end for Wolfgang or for Oded. Wolfgang was followed by demons, remorselessly depicted here, and Oded was, too--which he expresses with a psychological clarity that makes this historical drama a searing human drama, as well.

The first American screening of The Champagne Spy will be shown in competition at the Seattle International Film Festival on May 31 and then at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 23 and 24. Watch for it elsewhere.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to "Oded Gur-Arie" as meaning "Oded the rampant lion." The actual translation is closer to "the lion's cub." We regret the error.

By Martin Peretz