Mata Hari: The spy who came in from the cold

Ninety years after her execution for espionage, Mata Hari remains a byword for female treachery. Here, the director Martha Fiennes explains why she is now making a film, starring Dita Von Teese, which casts this notorious seductress in a very different light
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The Independent Online

Mata Hari is a name everybody recognises but nobody seems to know anything about. You could argue that she is the ultimate fallen woman. What interests me about her is that she created her own identity and branding. Her story is all about fantasy – conceiving an idea and then selling herself brilliantly on it – in short, an advertiser's dream. Mata Hari is all the more fascinating when all the things that have been projected on to her since her death are considered. It is a phenomenon that has been shared by a myriad other "fallen women" through history, from Mary Magdalene to Pope Joan to Princess Diana.

It is perhaps appropriate to start by giving a few facts about Mata Hari's life. Her real name was Marguerite Zelle and she was born in the Netherlands in August 1876. Her father was a bankrupt hat-seller. At 18 she married a Dutch naval officer, Rudolf MacLeod, and moved with him to Java in what was then the Dutch East Indies, later Indonesia, where she had two children. The first, Norman, died as a child, possibly, it is said, as a result of poisoning. This is alleged to have been an act of revenge, carried out by a maid who poisoned the child's rice as a response to Rudolf's extreme brutality in this colonial outpost to a young Javanese soldier. In this telling of Mata Hari's story, then, men were destroying her life – in this case as a mother – from the start.

MacLeod was certainly a drunk and abused his wife. Their marriage lasted less than a decade and ended up in divorce, with their daughter, Non, placed in the custody of her father. He refused to allow his ex-wife any contact with her, though she continued trying to get letters to her ever after.

Marguerite emerged from the divorce "fallen" from bourgeois respectability with few options open to her. She used her natural and precocious sexual sense to reinvent herself completely – a kind of Madonna of her day. A divorcee at that time was regarded as damaged goods, so while her solution may sound extreme, it is also understandable.

She headed for Paris, where she worked initially in a circus as Lady MacLeod, but in 1905 started performing as an exotic dancer and calling herself Mata Hari, a name taken from the Indonesian and Malay words meaning literally "Dawn of the Day". She performed almost nude on some of the best stages in Europe, veiling herself and her body in elaborate layers of fantasy. She was, she would tell audiences, a princess from Java of priestly Indian birth, who had been initiated into sacred dancing as a child. Her act took on both an erotic and a quasi-religious dimension.

She had what we would today call a high skill set, both on stage and with men. She spoke seven European languages and was a courtesan with many lovers, including high-ranking military officers, who funded what became a lavish lifestyle. In the fin-de-siècle world of pre-1914 Paris, she was a celebrated figure.

The script I am writing about Mata Hari's life and myth is based on what I feel is the best (of many) biographies of her, by the British-based Canadian writer, Julie Wheelwright. Hers is a perceptive and insightful take that identifies the extraordinary and sometimes damaging mythologising of powerful women who capture the public's imagination. In her book, Wheelwright quotes the historian AL Rowse. "There is a wide-ranging association," he wrote, "of war with sexuality, complex, intricate, intimate and at every level."

So, in Mata Hari's case, what had been acceptable before the First World War became something other once the conflict began. Her lifestyle, her independence, her ability to travel alone, the essential selfishness of what she did, all became suspect. At her subsequent trial, one of the chief prosecutors, Lieutenant Mornet, labelled her typical of the sort of "international woman [who] has become so dangerous since the hostilities began [because of] the ease with which she expresses herself in several languages, especially French, her numerous relations, her subtle ways, her aplomb, her remarkable integrity, and her immorality, congenital or acquired".

In effect, the men who had enjoyed Mata Hari's skills mostly turned against her once war broke out, and unleashed a brutal misogyny as they sought to condemn her. A prison doctor who looked after her during her trial described her as "a being without physical charm, something of a savage, it was certainly through hard work before her mirror, and by strength of will, that this woman had succeeded in cultivating beauty, by putting her body in the most pleasing attitude". '

One lover had been the French Defence Minister at the outbreak of war. He would have worried that she knew things about him that could be valuable to the enemy. Mata Hari was to find to her cost that if you sleep with men across Europe in peacetime, once a war begins, your position becomes extremely precarious. Contrast her with the women whom the leaders of wartime Europe valued and she can be seen as a victim of the sexual politics of the era. Women during a war were required to embody chastity, patriotism, to be essentially passive and self-sacrificing. She was none of these.

In such an exposed position, it was understandable that when she was approached by French intelligence agents, who wanted her to exploit her contacts with military officers of all nationalities to uncover secrets, she agreed. So, she became a spy, but a curiously naive one. It was as if it was another game for her. In that sense there is something almost comic about it. But it quickly turned to tragedy.

When she came back to the French authorities with information she had extracted from a contact in Madrid who had links to the Germans, their fundamental doubts about her only increased. She had made it seem almost too easy. They accused her of being a double agent. Mata Hari was arrested in February 1917, tried and found guilty of spying for Germany and therefore of causing the deaths of 50,000 young Frenchmen in the trenches. The evidence against her was slight. One witness sought to condemn her on the basis that she was a femme forte – a strong woman. She was executed in Vincennes on 15 October 1917.

Even her death is surrounded by myth. There are various stories – that she blew a kiss to the firing squad, that she wore a fur coat, that she opened it at the last minute to flash her naked body in an effort to make the riflemen miss – but I find the reality much more moving. The image I have of her is of someone without food in a damp, rat-infested cell, so different from her boudoir as a courtesan, awaiting her execution, abandoned by Vadime de Masloff, her young Russian lover and the love of her life. No one came afterwards to claim her body.

My script does not attempt to put her on a pedestal. She was not your typical heroine. She was a contradictory and sometimes unlikeable character. She also got caught up in something bigger than herself. She was hopelessly ill-equipped and even arrogant when it came to getting involved in espionage for the French. Yet she went about it all so very grandly – which I secretly admire her for.

I want to reflect on the sheer shoddiness of her trial. In many ways it was just as much of a charade as her performances. She was packed off to her death because France needed someone to blame for its woes on the battlefield. It had to be seen to cut out the cancer of its losses. It needed a head to hold up, a witch to burn. Her death came at a very particular moment in the course of the conflict. It can be argued that a month or so before, or a month or so later, Mata Hari would never have been sentenced to death, but France itself at that instant was in crisis, and she was an easy scapegoat. I find myself reminded of the phrase that the only good woman is a dead woman.

There is, though, a huge attraction in the visualisation of feminine seductiveness and beauty and my film will not pull its punches in this respect. "I see things big," Mata Hari once said. I want to honour her on this – with the help of Dita Von Teese, who will play Mata Hari. I was writing a synopsis of the script, early on in the project, and found myself saying of Mara Hari that she was "the Dita Von Teese of her day". In that moment it seemed so logical to cast her.

Dita is usually described as a burlesque artist, but what she does is strip. Mata Hari used to say that "stripping is my art form" and she made it one – a show, a performance, an escape route even. There is certainly an art to taking your clothes off in front of an audience, and Mata Hari did it very well. As does Dita now.

The other fascinating element in Mata Hari's story for me is why it has endured for so long. Why do we all know her name? In part it is because of the demonisation that followed her execution. There were 10 women and around 300 men executed in France for espionage during the First World War, but we remember only one name.

Mata Hari illustrates the need we have for morality tales – especially around women. Why, to take a recent example, do we care whether Princess Diana was pregnant with Dodi al-Fayed's child? What does it matter? Yet somehow it does.

What the Mata Hari legend shows, in particular, is a courtesan getting her just desserts, men punishing someone who at the same time they want. The myth "proves" that a seductive woman who exploits sex, who exploits men, is not to be trusted. And you see that curious mixture of the allure of Mata Hari and that need for her legend in the books and films that have come at regular intervals since her death.

The first attempt to construct a story around her name came in 1921, in a silent German film. In 1931, Greta Garbo appeared as Mata Hari in a fiction based very loosely on the facts. And, in succeeding decades, a range of actresses from Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jeanne Moreau, Sylvia Kristel, Marlene Dietrich and Doris Day have played her. She was said in the Indiana Jones books to have deflowered him. And in the 1967 spoof James Bond film Casino Royale, to have fathered a child with the secret agent. All this fantasy was possible in part because the actual details were under lock and key. Without any substantiated research, the facts of the death of this sexual, sensual female icon by firing squad grew and mutated and became something it was not.

But in the 1960s, documents began to emerge that provide a very different picture and take us behind the distortions that are part of the ghastly cliché of Mata Hari to her still riveting picture. The first biographer to use these archives was a Dutchman, Sam Waagenaar, in 1964. By 2001, a French publisher had made available her entire dossier, and MI5 records about her – showing that the British could find no evidence that she was a spy – are now in the public domain.

In my film, I will attempt to put the record straight – and to uncover those deeper, darker reasons why this fallen women has remained with us for so long. *

Martha Fiennes was talking to Peter Stanford