'The Champagne Spy' tells story of Israeli intelligence agent
When he was a teenager, Oded Gur-Arie learned a secret that, if revealed, could have ended his father’s life.
Ze’ev Gur-Arie, also known as Wolfgang Lotz, was a spy for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. He operated in Egypt during the 1960s, a time when that nation was one of Israel’s most lethal enemies.
His story — and the impact of his job on those who loved him — is the subject of “The Champagne Spy,” a 2007 film by director Nadav Schirman.
Gur-Arie’s family moved to Paris when he was 12. At first, the younger Gur-Arie knew nothing of his father’s mission, which was to impersonate a former Nazi, move to Egypt and rub elbows with some of the German scientists who at the time were helping Egypt with its weapons program. It was an easy cover in part because Wolfgang Lotz was the man’s real name; he had been born in Germany but moved to Palestine as a child when Adolf Hitler came to power.
His father, Gur-Arie recalled, projected such confidence that even when he was let in on the secret, he didn’t fully realize the danger.
“I?was sure he’d be fine, that he knew what he was doing,”?said Gur-Arie, director of the entrepreneurship institute at Adrian College in Adrian, Mich. Instead of the worry his mother felt, the young Gur-Arie simply felt like he was part of something important and secret.
The illusion of safety was shattered when he saw his father’s name under a newspaper headline about six Germans disappearing in Cairo.
Even after he was arrested, Gur-Arie said, it was crucial that nobody know his father was Israeli and not a German national.
“If they had found out he was an Israeli officer, they would have executed him, but as a German, he had a chance,” Gur-Arie said.
Instead of being executed, Lotz was sentenced to life in prison but was released three years later in a prisoner exchange. He did not reunite with Gur-Arie’s mother, however, instead staying with a woman he had married while under cover.
For the film, Gur-Arie traveled with Schirman to many of the places that figured prominently in his childhood and his father’s career, including the apartment where the family lived in Paris. He said the film, which includes many clips from home movies he shot as a teenager, was not just a project but also a “personal journey.”
“It was a very personal experience in which I learned a lot about myself and my family and such, and got to see things from different perspectives,”?he said.
The movie, which won the 2007 Israeli Academy Award for best documentary and several other accolades, also features interviews with actual Israeli intelligence agents. Gur-Arie said it marks the first time Mossad agents were allowed to appear on camera talking about their work.
For many years, Gur-Arie said, he couldn’t talk about his father — first because he wasn’t allowed to, and later because he had become so used to keeping it to himself that he didn’t want to share the story. Working on “The Champagne Spy” with Schirman had a sort of “cleansing effect,”?he said.
Gur-Arie said he sometimes wondered if his father realized how much pain he had caused those around him — his wife, his son, the friends in Cairo who were arrested because of their association with him. But he never asked the question outright.
“We talked around it, and I?could sense when we?did that wasn’t an area he wanted to delve in,”?he said.
Gur-Arie said one reviewer called the movie “the flip side of the James Bond story” — “which I?thought was a really good, perceptive way of understanding what it is,”?he said.
The film, he said, is really a human drama — not just about a spy for the Mossad, but also about the spy’s family and his career’s impact on the people who stayed behind.