A son’s desire to finally unload the secrets he’s been carrying for decades triggers Nadav Schirman’s assured doc, “The Champagne Spy.” The outline alone — Mossad undercover agent keeps his real family in the dark while carrying on a lavish lifestyle — suggests a movie-movie (and indeed, Schirman is currently adapting an English-language feature version for German producer Ulrich Limmer). Doc’s perspectives on the personal costs paid for a life of espionage and the dark side of Israel’s spy wars are bracing and dramatic, assuring strong fest and distrib interest, which could expand beyond Stateside Jewish demo.
Schirman proceeds from the paired notions that a spy can allow his secret identity to take over his entire personality, and that the son of that spy must live with the tragedy of watching his father drift away from him.
Oded Gur Arie, whose father Ze’ev Gur Arie (better known as Wolfgang Lotz, as he’s referred to throughout) operated undercover inside Egypt during some of the most charged years of the Nasser regime in the ’60s. Oded recalls moving, at 11, from Israel to Paris with Lotz and mother Rivka, and the odd pattern of father being away on business for long stretches and then returning without warning.
Although agents were sternly instructed never to reveal their true activities to family members, Lotz told Oded enough for the boy to know his father was a real-life James Bond. The admission, though, placed a grossly unfair burden on Oded at a young age; nevertheless, he remained absolutely mum on the subject prior to speaking for Schirman’s camera.
Schirman’s other ace in the hole was getting notoriously tight-lipped Mossad vets to open up about Lotz’s activities in Egypt, which involved posing as a rich German horse breeder and developing relationships with German scientists aiding Nasser’s weapon plans against Israel. At the same time, Lotz’s high-priced lifestyle gradually began to overwhelm his domestic life back in Paris, visualized here in Oded’s homemovie footage of a father who seems to grow more distant with every visit.
Story’s most stunning revelation (and the basis for the planned feature pic) is Lotz’s love affair with German expat Waltraud Neumann, whom he ended up marrying in Cairo with Mossad’s assistance and blessing. One former Mossad topper, the outspoken and honestly critical Avrum Shalom, decries this decision while observing that Lotz’s various and conflicting assignments for the agency created “a split personality.”
Adding zing to this already juicy saga is the arrest of Lotz, Neumann and pal Nadja Kiesow on espionage charges in 1965; Lotz’s life sentence and Neumann’s three-year sentence were suspended in a spy swap after Egypt’s disastrous loss in the 1967 Six-Day War.
After years of living the high life, Lotz’s slow decline comes across as rather pathetic, compounded by his attempts (amply shown here in archival TV clips) to promote himself in the media and in his autobiography, “The Champagne Spy.” Oded’s perspective becomes especially moving as it reveals the terrible price paid by Rivka, by her husband and her country.
Schirman’s account of Lotz’s life, however, leaves out significant details, including a tragic German upbringing that left him utterly confused about whether he was Jewish or German or both. Absent this background, pic feels like an unfinished portrait.Oded’s on-camera interview segments are exceptional in a film that’s occasionally overwhelmed with talking heads. Ace editor Joelle Alexis’ skill at inserting archival and homemovie footage can’t be overstated, while the Ran Bagno jazz score gives pic some real distinction.