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If audiences see Mossad spy thriller The Operative, which has Iran as a backdrop, as steering clear of tortured Middle East politics and remaining politically even-handed, that was precisely the aim of Yuval Adler, who touted his latest movie at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday.
The Israeli director told a press conference that he set out to create a human drama with no good guys and bad guys. “It’s not about car chases and shooting. It’s about emotion and perception,” Adler said of his fast-paced thriller that is part of the Berlin competition lineup and stars Diane Kruger as Rachel, a rogue Mossad spy recruited to work in Iran.
“I feel the focus of the film isn’t saying who’s right. It’s just a character study, a drama about people in certain situations,” he added.
Last year, Israel accused Iran of continuing to develop nuclear weapons in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a multilateral agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council regarding the country’s nuclear program.
“The film isn’t about Iran. Iran is the backdrop for some of this stuff,” he said. “I’m not in a position to say something important about Iran. I wouldn’t know how.”
The Operative also features Black Panther star Martin Freeman playing a former handler to Rachel, and Cas Anvar as Farhad, her love interest. Rachel and Farhad in the thriller quickly become caught up in a tangled web of deception and espionage as the mission against Iran’s nuclear program sends their relationship into a complicated web that also threatens to ruin Farhad’s life.
Adler insisted The Operative did not show the Mossad in a bad light, which could invite retribution in Israel. “I don’t think that’s the case. I think intelligence organizations are always exploitative in their roles,” he argued. “I don’t think any other organization acts differently, as professionals manipulate non-professionals.”
Adler added the Israeli book The English Teacher, on which he partly based The Operative and which was written by former Israeli intelligence officer Yiftach Reicher Atir, had already been censored in Israel. “There’s a lot of mechanics that I show in the film that were published in some form,” the director said. “And also, for me, it was not the letter of the thing, but the spirit of what espionage is. I don’t think we revealed any details, anything dangerous. We just revealed life.”
Kruger, who won the best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 for her role in Fatih Akin’s drama In the Fade, said she deliberately decided against playing Rachel as a cold-blooded killer typical of Hollywood thrillers. “She’s not Jason Bourne. She’s not James Bond,” the German star said.
Instead, Rachel overflows with emotion. “Things get messy, and I was interested in finding a truth in that,” Kruger said.
The international espionage drama, which shot in Israel, Germany and Bulgaria helping double as Iran, is financed by Teddy Schwarzman’s Black Bear Pictures. Adler did at one point get political when, while rejecting that the Mossad had ever censored any of his films, including the 2013 espionage drama Bethlehem, he addressed recent attempts by Israel’s cultural minister to pass legislation to withhold arts funding based on political criteria.
The so-called cultural loyalty bill was never brought to a vote. “If it passes, it’s going to be bad. So far it hasn’t passed, and there’s going to be elections,” Adler said.
The Berlin Film Festival continues through Feb. 17.
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