In many analogue and digital sources a film entitled Mata Hari/ Die Spionin (Ludwig Wolf 1920/1921), starring Asta Nielsen, is listed as the oldest biopic of the life of Mata Hari aka Lady MacLeod aka Margaretha Zelle. You will find this on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), which in general for German silent cinema is quite unreliable. But one also traces it in the English and Dutch Wikipedia, James Monaco’s The Movie Guide, David Thompson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, James Robert Parish’s Prostitution in Hollywood films, Jerry Vermilye’s More films from the thirties, Georg Seeßlen’s Filmwissen: Thriller: Grundlagen des populären Films and several earlier publications by the same author, Léon Schirmann’s Mata-Hari: autopsie d’une machination, Michael R. Pitts’s The Great Spies Pictures, Valeria Palumbo’s Le figlie di Lilith: vipere, dive, dark ladies e femmes fatales : l’altra ribellione femminile, Rüdiger Dirk and Claudius Sowa’s Paris im Film: Filmografie einer Stadt, and many others. The English Wikipedia even indicates Mata Hari (1920) and Die Spionin (1921) as two separate films, both about Mata Hari.
Nevertheless, my suspicions arose when I could not find the film on the generally quite thorough German films site www.filmportal.de. When I launched a call for more information on the Facebook site of Domitor, the network for researchers dealing with early cinema, my suspicions increased. Joseph Juenger, Artistic Director at Stummfilm-Festival Karlsruhe, asked if I was really sure about this film. He could‘t find a film with the title Die Spionin, neither on the FIAF-CD nor in the 2010 two-volume extensive monography on Asta Nielsen by Heide Schlüpmann and Karola Gramann, nor on filmportal.de. Juenger remarked there was only a film with the title Die Rache der Spionin (1921), but the director was Richard Eicherg and Nielsen lacked. I therefore contacted Asta Nielsen expert Heide Schlüpmann, who kindly told me despite her thorough research she never found a film with Nielsen called either Mata Hari or Die Spionin. It just seemed that all the above mentioned authors had just copied each other without bothering to check any original sources.
O.k. so a Mata Hari film with Asta Nielsen didn’t exist. But where did the rumour come from then? Again, Heide Schlüpmann was very helpful. But first: who was this enigmatic Ludwig Wolff? He was born in 1876 in the Silesian city of Bielitz, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, now the Polish city Bielsko, which merged in 1951 with the city of Biala. Bielitz was the centre of the wool industry within the Austrian Empire. Wolff came from a Jewish family. Between 1900 and 1933 he wrote dozens of popular genre fiction, of which many were filmed by the German film industry between the late 1910s and the early 1930s, such as the Lotte Neumann vehicle Das Schicksal der Carola von Geldern (1919). In the late 1910s and early 1920s Wolff directed some 8 films himself, among which three with Asta Nielsen: Steuermann Holk (1920), Die Tänzerin Navarro (1922) and Der Absturz (1922). After that followed the romantic drama Die Liebe einer Königin (1923), with Henny Porten and Harry Liedtke and based on the notorious affair of the Swedish queen and her physician Struensee. Wolff was also screenwriter and copoducer for this film. After Garragan (1924), a German production starring Hollywood actress Carmel Myers, Wolff quitted screen direction. He would only occasionally collaborate on film scripts in the early sound era.
Pictures of Die Tänzerin Navarro. Courtesy Danish Film Archive.
From the three mentioned Asta Nielsen films by Wolff, Die Tänzerin Navarro (Ludwig Wolff 1922) proved to have parts of the plot that coincided with the biography of Mata Hari. The Danish written programme booklet of the film gives the most details: The Spanish dancer Carmencita Navarro (Nielsen) has lost one of her children because of the revenge of a Javanese man against her husband, the planter Marcellus Gondriaan (Hans Wassmann). Gondriaan dies by a gunshot as well. With her daughter Navarro flees to her fatherland, where she accepts an engagement in a big vaudeville business. When she enters into an affair with a business friend of her late husband, a certain Mortensen (Ivan Petrovich), she is suddenly suspected of espionage. It even goes that far that she is trialled and condemned to death. But as she is about to be shot, she is saved in the very last minute. That is: mostly she was, in some versions of the film’s print she wasn’t.
This is clearly a variation on Mata Hari’s own life, even if with many differences. In 1895 Mata Hari alias Margarethe Zelle married the Dutch army captain Rudolph MacLeod, who, in 1897, took her to live with him in the Dutch East Indies, on Java and other islands. The couple lost their son Norman there, probably of poisoning. Various explanations exist how this happened and why. Some say he was poisoned as revenge for the captain’s brutal behaviour towards the child’s nanny or baboe. In her biography Femme Fatale, love, life and the unknown lies of Mata Hari (2007) Pat Shipman suggests it could have been revenge of a former local mistress of MacLeod or the effect of mercury poisoning when Zelle and her children were taking mercury cures against syphilis spread by MacLeod. In 1902 the couple returned to the Netherlands with their daughter and in 1907 they officially separated. Zelle went to Paris and as of 1905 she became the famous, scandalous Orientalist dancer Mata Hari and created her own exotic pedigree. She became first a Parisian and then a European sensation, performing even in the Scala of Milan and becoming extremely wealthy. During the First World War, her craving for wealth was not appreciated anymore, and she was first by the British, and later by the French, suspected of being a spy for the Germans. Finally, in the wave of the big French army’s mutinies against the war and the French military staff, a scapegoat was searched and found in the person of Mata Hari. Despite any hard proof, in 1917 she was arrested, trialled and executed at the fortress of Vincennes near Paris.
Mata Hari, die rote Tänzerin. Courtesy DIF.
After Die Tänzerin Navarro, others would go deeper in creating films on female spies during the First World War that ware based on Mata Hari’s biography, in the first place Rex Ingram, whose Mare nostrum (Rex Ingram 1926) was a touching drama with Alice Terry as the Mata Hari-like spy Freya Talberg, Antonio Moreno as the Spanish captain who falls for her, and Mme Paquerette as the sturdy Austrian spy Dokter Fedelmann who blackmails Freya into spying. According to Kevin Brownlow Ingram went to great lengths to get all kinds of Mata Hari details right. The execution was shot at the same fortress at Vincennes and with accompaniment of the same horn music played by the same band (24th Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpins – “Blue Devils”). Mare nostrum was e.g. shown during the Rex Ingram retrospective at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, but was also broadcasted on ARTE television. The first full fling biopic of Mata Hari, as far as can be traced is Mata Hari (Friedrich Féher 1927) starring Magda Sonja. The French CNC just restored the film, so this may well be shown in festivals or at the upcoming Mata Hari exhibition. At the time a beautiful Dutch poster for this film was designed by Joop van den Berg.
In addition to A Woman Redeemed (Sinclair Hill 1926) with Joan Lockton, a British film on a woman forced into spying, remarkable is The Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo 1928) with Garbo, as this was based on a novel by Ludwig Wolff, Der Krieg im Dunkel (War in the Dark, 1915). In the film’s plot Russian spy Tania (Garbo) is successful in her job (the aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca is a Leitmotiv), but does so with disgust. She has an affair with an Austrian colonel (Conrad Nagel) and helps him against all rules and nationalism. The film was shown in October 2016 as the opening film of the Giornate del cinema muto in Pordenone, with an orchestra led by Carl Davis. The opening scene with Garbo emotionally overflown by the opera scene on stage, while meeting her lover for the first time, closely follows the opening scene in the Italian silent film Tigre reale (Giovanni Pastrone 1916). Curiously enough, the German DVD version of the films carries the title of Wolff’s novel: Der Krieg im Dunkel. Possibly Wollf’s novel Der Krieg im Dunkel played a part in the historiographic confusion over Asta’s Mata as well.
In conclusion: while prints of Wolff’s films Steuermann Holk, Die Liebe einer Königin, Garragan and Der Absturz have survived, Die Tänzerin Navarro seems a lost film now. However, the Danish Film Archive has published various stills of the film on its website, which at least give an idea.