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'The Operative': Politics take back seat in Israeli director's film about Mossad agent in Iran

“The Operative” by Israeli director and scriptwriter Yuval Adler stars Diane Kruger as a Mossad agent sent to Tehran to spy on a local businessman
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Israeli director rejects German criticism that the film portrays the Mossad in a bad light

The production of the film “The Operative,” directed by Israeli Yuval Adler with Diane Kruger playing a Mossad agent sent to Iran, might have been a spy film in its own right. A local camera crew was hired without knowing by whom; Kruger was replaced with a body double filmed strolling the streets of Tehran with Adler observing via the iPhone from New York, remotely giving instructions. But the political tension that mounted challenges for its production, takes a backseat in the film itself.

“This is not a political film, it is a film about people, about relationships,” Adler told i24NEWS, after the film’s screening at Berlin’s international film festival, the Berlinale.

Based on the novel by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a former Israeli special forces fighter, “The Operative” centers on Rachel, a British-German national requited by Israel's Mossad spy agency and sent to Iran under the cover of an English teacher. But when her mission to spy on a playboy Iranian businessman gets complicated and she disappears, her handler Tomas (played by Martin Freeman) is tasked with finding her before she becomes a security risk.

In the press conference in Berlin, Kruger described how, in order to prepare for her role, she trained with Mossad operatives. “I did little things, like convincing a stranger in the street to help me get from A to B, knock at someone's door, literally saying 'I need your help can I come in and can I be on your balcony.’ The mission was to get to their balcony, so the Mossad people outside would see that my story convinced somebody. I felt terrible about lying to these really nice people.”

Polina Garaev / i24NEWS

In the original book on which the film is based, the enemy state where Rachel was posted was not disclosed. But in the film, Iran is named as the target country and the mission takes a realistic turn: the goal is to sell defective parts for Iran’s nuclear program. Rachel, whose ties to Israel are repeatedly questioned, becomes expendable in the process.

To some German journalists, the exploitative portrayal of Israel’s intelligence services was seen as feeding into anti-Zionist tropes and justifying criticisms levied by the Israeli government against the festival. The thriller “fills every anti-Israeli stereotype,” noted the left-leaning newspaper TAZ in an article titled “No Berlinale without critic of Israel.”

But Adler rejects such allegations. “I don't think it shows the Mossad in a bad light. I think intelligence organizations are always exploitative in trying to get their goals. I don't think any other organization acts differently. There is a tension in the film between the professionals who manipulate non-professionals. But again, that's a universal thing when you have spies and non-spies.”

Language is also used to establish power relations in the film. The Mossad operatives address Rachael and Thomas in Hebrew, but they are unable to answer other than in English. “Not only Israelis work for the Mossad, it employed people with all kinds of passports. But here Rachel and Thomas are outsiders, and the language reflected that.”

For the filming, Kruger spent eight weeks in Israel. “I have never been to Israel, so that was great,” she told journalists. “I have to say, loved it. It’s an interesting place, for many reasons. It felt strange to be by the beach knowing there were missiles launched a few miles away […] It made me see things in a different light. You hear the news, the angles that are being taken by the media abroad, but when you are there, you experience things a bit differently.”

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