Even those who don't know much about her, know Mata Hari was executed for being a spy.
That's about all Susan Wolf knew, too, when Machiel Amorison -- a Dutch filmmaker Wolf had worked with decades prior -- suggested that they make a film together about her for the 100th anniversary of her execution. His great-grandmother had gone to school with Mata Hari, and so he grew up with stories about her.
"I said, 'Who's Mata Hari?' I really didn't know anything substantial about her at all," the Corte Madera filmmaker says. "I said, 'I don't know. I'll have to research this.'"
The more she explored, the more interested she became in Mata Hari -- a self-created woman and international sex symbol famous for provocative dances and barely-there outfits before she was accused of spying and executed at age 41 by a French firing squad on Oct. 15, 1917.
But much of what had been written about her was wrong, Wolf later found out, after getting access to information that had recently been released by MI5, and the French military, as well as the release of letters she'd written.
The result is "Mata Hari: The Naked Spy," a documentary traces Mata Hari's story using archival photos, interviews and re-enactments, with Dutch actress Florence Rapati portraying Mata Hari.
"There's wonderful historical photos but there're no moving images," Wolf says. "We didn't feel we could make the film without showing her dance, and no other film does that. We wanted to bring her to life more."
Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle into a well-to-do family in Holland in 1876. But soon tragedy befell the family -- her father's unwise investments left the family penniless and he left, and when her mother died when she was just 15, she was sent to live with relatives. When she was 18, she answered a newspaper ad placed by Capt. Rudolf MacLeod, a hard-drinking, womanizing officer in the East Indies army who was looking for a wife.
Her transformation to Mata Hari came after years of abuse at MacLeod's hand, the death of her son (her letters reveal that MacLeod had given her syphilis that was passed on to her children, and it's likely he died from mercury treatments) and the loss of her daughter when she and MacLeod separated despite winning custody of her.
When MacLeod refused to pay the court-ordered support, a destitute Zelle left for Paris -- thanks to the help of a wealthy benefactor -- in 1903.
"She was trying to be an actress. She really did have the desire to be on stage. She joined a theater company and was taking acting classes, she was cast to be in a performance that they canceled at the last minute," she says.
When that fell through, Zelle, recalling the sensuous dances she saw while living in Asia, renamed herself Mata Hari and became an overnight sensation after her debut performance before 600 hoi polloi and journalists at the Paris Musee Guimet in 1905.
'She had charisma'
"She had charisma. She just drew people to her. She had that personality and that charm, and she just had one after another male admirers," Wolf says.
But Zelle never spoke to or saw her daughter again, and the numerous letters she sent to her were intercepted by MacLeod, so her daughter never even likely knew.
"In her letters, you really hear her struggle. She was really struggling to find a way to be a proper mother and keep her daughter with her and lead a respectable life, but at that time options for divorced women were very limited," she says. "She wasn't going to be a nursemaid or a laundress. She was cultured and educated."
By the time Zelle accepted money to spy for the Germans, she was older and her stage career was basically over. Once again, she had few options.
In fact, the new information about Zelle should cast her in a different light, Wolf says.
"She really wasn't much of a spy," Wolf says with a laugh. "She never really passed any information of any strategic or military value to the Germans."
The Santa Fe New Mexican calls it "a fast-moving, ever-engaging film. It's one in which you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop -- and it usually does!"
The movie is "ultimately about a world that grows complicated and perilous enough to swallow somebody once regarded as larger-than-life," writes the Santa Fe Reporter after the film had its world premiere at the Santa Fe Film Festival. "As an archival project, it succeeds."
Her ability to survive a challenging childhood, abuse and the tragedy of losing her children by re-creating herself speaks to her creativity, intelligence and independence, Wolf says.
"I think you can say she represents the power we all have to reinvent our own lives. She overcame a lot of trauma in her early life," Wolf says. "But she never became a victim. Instead she was a real survivor. She was very much a self-made woman at a time when it was a very difficult thing to do."
Wolf hopes that her documentary -- which just got an international distributor -- shows that side of Zelle, as well as how we laud the sexual prowess of male spies such as James Bond, but cast women such as Mata Hari as a "seductress spy."
"It's interesting to think why was Mata Hari so threatening? Because she was a sexually free woman and that was very intimidating to the male society at the time," she says. "What's changed? Not much."
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