You’d be forgiven for assuming that this is a blatant piece of Israeli propaganda against Iran. The Operative is a German-Israeli production director by an Israeli director, who has previously served in the Israeli army (like all males in the Middle Eastern nation where military service is compulsory). It follows the footsteps of Rachel (Diane Kruger), an undercover Mossad spy working in Tehran. But this isn’t a good-Israelis-versus-evil-Iranians type of film. This is a psychological drama that uses espionage as a narrative tool, and the focus is on the female character and the choice that she has to make.
Rachel her no clear identity. Her late mother was German and her father is British, she has lived in many parts of the world, and only ended up in Israel because of her ex-boyfriend. She is adopted. At least that’s her version of her personal story. The Mossad concoct a new persona for her: an Australian-born Canadian, who has also lived in many places. She’s the ideal agent because there’s nothing Israeli about her. Diane Kruger is the perfect choice for the role. She’s firm and stern, yet with a hint of fear and humanity in her eyes. The German actress is right fit for such complex and explosive roles, such as the vigilante widow in Fatih Akin’s 2017 In the Fade (when I write “explosive”, I mean it literally).
She becomes a language teacher in the Iranian capital in order to carry out various small espionage quests. She is eventually asked to infiltrate a small technology firm run by the cocky and seductive Fahrad (Cas Anvar). Fahrad and Rachel become genuinely enamoured of each other, and Rachel’s allegiances towards the Mossad come under suspicion. Thankfully for her, Mossad agent Thomas (Martin Freeman) lends a helping hand and prevents her little secret from becoming known to her bosses.
The Mossad fits tracking devices in components sold to Fahrad’s technology firm, and he’s obviously unaware that the items purchased are bugged. Fahrad tells Rachel that the Mossad and Israel kill children at their convenience, yet his company is prevented from buying mere parts for medical equipment due to international sanctions. There is no suggestion that the Iranian government is building military weapons. The Mossad are depicted as unscrupulous an with little regard to human life. They are prepared to kill innocent people without a second thought. They are willing to eliminate their very own people in case they defect (a bit like a fundamentalist cult). This justify their actions: “This is a war”.
Iranian people are portrayed as kind and generous, while Tehran is painted as a city full of dark secrets. I’m fairly confident none of these scenes were filmed in Iran, a country that imposes strict censorship on filmmakers. We see an underground party where women shun the hijab, drink and take drugs, very serious offences in the conservative nation. This is by no means an indictment of the Iranian people. This is not a Hollywood thriller spiked with Islamophobic flavours. This is a psychological drama about a female spy unable to reconcile her dangerous job with her assailable heart. On the other, this is not a film that will stay in your heart for a long time. It’s fun to watch, but that’s about it.
The Operative is showing as part of the main selection of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, but it’s running out of competition.