April 2, 2020

The Dangerous Affair that is Mossad Spy Thriller ‘The Operative’

Diane Kruger, Cas Anwar in "The Operative." Photos by Kolja Brandt/Vertical Entertainment

While CIA and MI6 spies have long been beloved by moviemakers, the secret agents of Israel’s Mossad are having a cinematic moment as the protagonists of such films as “Operation Finale,” “The Red Sea Diving Resort” and the forthcoming “Spider in the Web.” 

Writer-director Yuval Adler’s “The Operative” is the latest in the subgenre, spinning a suspenseful story about a woman (Diane Kruger) working undercover for the Mossad in Tehran, her handler (Martin Freeman) and her target (Cas Anvar), an electronics company mogul. Her mission is to use the target to transfer faulty nuclear components to Iranian intelligence, but it’s compromised when the two begin an affair. 

Don’t come expecting flashy heroics à la James Bond or Jason Bourne, Adler told the Journal. “It’s more personal. I think a movie is most interesting when it shows you something about human nature and relationships.”

Adapted from the novel “The English Teacher” by Yiftach R. Atir, “it’s a psychological espionage story that explores spy craft from the first-person perspective of a spy on the ground in Iran,” Adler said. “It shows spying like it really is, not all chases and guns. There’s something about the idea of somebody who assumes an identity and lives a fake life in a different country and what that means. What I loved about the book was how realistic it was in showing the minutiae of long-term espionage work. I connected to the story emotionally and especially to the main character, Rachel. And I liked the fact that it is told from two different perspectives.”

“Don’t come expecting flashy heroics à la James Bond or Jason Bourne. It’s more personal. I think a movie is most interesting when it shows you something about human nature and relationships.” 

— Yuval Adler

Adler needed to make substantial changes in plot, structure and character to bring the book to the screen, but the fundamental idea is the same, he said. For research, he consulted Mossad agents and handlers “about the details of running an asset and the deep psychological aspect of it.” Ever since his Ophir (the Israeli Oscars) Award-winning 2013 debut film, “Bethlehem,” about an Israeli intelligence officer and his Palestinian asset, “people in the intelligence community have wanted to meet me,” he said.

Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman in “The Operative.” Photos by Kolja Brandt/Vertical Entertainment

It took Adler a couple of years to secure funding from European and American sources for “The Operative.” He then shot the film in less than 10 months on location in Germany, Israel, Bulgaria and Iran. To shoot in Tehran, he had to send his German cinematographer under the auspices of a shell company to obtain second-unit footage. As an Israeli, Adler couldn’t enter the country. He found parts of Sofia, Bulgaria, with similar architecture to stand in for Tehran in scenes with the actors. 

Although he came late to filmmaking, Adler dreamed about it as a teenager. “When I was 16, 17, 18, all I thought about was making films,” he said, but after his Israeli army service he detoured into math and physics studies at Tel Aviv University. He moved to New York at 23 to get his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, also studying art and photography. “That was my way back to film,” he said.

Aside from a five-year period when he returned to Israel and made “Bethlehem,” Adler has spent most of his adult life in New York, where he lives with his wife and two children, ages 10 and 8 1/2. Born in Herzliya, Adler said, “I feel more Jewish in America than in Israel,” but added he visits Israel two or three times a year because “it’s who I am. I believe you are your heritage.” 

Martin Freeman, Diane Kruger in “The Operative.” Photos by Kolja Brandt/Vertical Entertainment

Adler’s paternal forebears, from Austria, Prussia and Alexandria, Egypt, arrived in Palestine in the mid-19th century, and his mother’s Zionist family emigrated from Bulgaria in the early 1930s. He describes his Jewish upbringing as “totally secular” but revealed a strong interest in Judaism and Torah from an intellectual, literary and historical point of view 

His upcoming projects veer far from the world of Mossad spies. He’s currently editing “The Secrets We Keep,” a drama set in post-World War II Europe starring Joel Kinnaman and Noomi Rapace. “When it came to me at the end of last year, it was about Jewish Nazis and the Holocaust, but I did rewrites and it’s now more about war crime,” Adler said. 

He also has written a script for what he calls “a romantic sex comedy” with the working title “Pussy,” and he’s trying to buy the film rights to a crime drama. 

Equally interested in writing and directing, he’d like to make more action films and write more personal stories. Although his interest in espionage remains, “I’m trying to branch out and do different types of things,” Adler said. “I feel that I just started.”

“The Operative” is now in theaters.