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French Arrest Mata Hari

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 267th installment in the series. 

February 13, 1917: French Arrest Mata Hari 

It’s strangely fitting that the most notorious spy of the First World War was probably guilty of nothing more than self-aggrandizement and bad judgment. 

The exotic dancer and courtesan known as Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida in 1876, to a middle-class Dutch family with aspirations to social refinement; her father was a struggling hat-maker and her mother a low-ranking aristocrat with expensive tastes. Although citizens of the Netherlands their ancestry traced back to northern Germany, giving “Margreet” a cosmopolitan air, which was only reinforced by her dark features and “ethnic” appearance, fueling racist rumors of ancestors from India or Indonesia (echoing a scandalous allegation leveled at Britain’s former First Sea Lord and the inventor of the dreadnought, Jackie Fisher). 

Two years after her father declared bankruptcy, when Margreet was 15 her mother died and she was sent to live with her godfather. Noticing the effect her “exotic” appearance seemed to have on men, when she was 19 years old she responded to a newspaper personals ad placed by a Dutch colonial officer, Rudolf MacLeod, serving in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), seeking a wife. She moved to the Indies to be with MacLeod, married, and had two children by him, but tragically her older son was fatally poisoned, apparently by an angry servant.  

This tragedy spelled the end of their brief, tumultuous marriage, and following their return to Europe in 1901 Margreet left for Paris, where she parlayed her (mostly fictional) exotic background and appearance into a career as a dancer, supposedly performing the ritual dances of the libidinous Far East – naturally involving a good deal of nudity – under the name “Mata Hari,” translating as “Eye of the Day” in Malay. As expected of someone with such a scandalous occupation, she also worked as a high-class prostitute as she toured the capitals of Europe’s cosmopolitan pre-war social scene, notching up countless lovers, including assignations with many of the continent’s most famous and powerful men. 

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As it happened, May 1914 found Mata Hari in Berlin, where she had a brief affair with a German officer in the “morals” (vice) division. On the outbreak of war she tried to return to Paris, hoping to reconnect with old patrons there, arousing the suspicions of German officials who confiscated all her property, leaving her destitute. Undaunted as always, she managed to reestablish herself in the Netherlands as the mistress of a Dutch baron, and by December 1915 she was back in Paris, visiting all her old haunts and patrons. There she met and fell in love with a much younger Russian officer, the 21-year-old Vladimir de Masloff, who seemed to be equally infatuated with the aging dancer.

Fake Spy, Real Spy 

However Mata Hari was also already falling under suspicion from Allied intelligence agencies. The chief French counterintelligence officer, George Ladoux, believed (with no evidence beyond her amorous encounter with the German police officer) that she had accepted an offer from German intelligence to become a paid operative, using her liaisons with powerful men to gain access to key secrets, which she would pass back via unidentified handlers.

In fact, Mata Hari had been approached by a German agent in May 1916 in the Netherlands, and accepted an offer of 20,000 francs to work for Germany, along with a codename, “H21” – but all in bad faith, she would later insist, claiming she went along chiefly out of a desire to recoup the earlier loss of her property at the hands of German officials. Unfortunately for her, this misstep would come to light when France’s fortunes were at a particularly low ebb. 

The suspicion of Mata Hari was part of a new wave of spy mania that swept France in 1917, as politicians, the press, and government propaganda sought answers (or excuses) for the nation’s continuing inability to expel foreign invaders, who always seemed to be one step ahead of them – literally, in the case of the German Army’s impending strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Amid growing social unrest at home and mutinous rumblings at the front, the logical scapegoat was internal betrayal by people of dubious background, reviving the xenophobic and anti-Semitic themes of the Dreyfus Affair from 1894-1906.

The demonization also reflected a number of overlapping fears and insecurities resulting from social and cultural trends, which had gripped France and the rest of Europe by the third year of the war. These included widespread distrust of foreigners, including not just the enemy but also unreliable Allies and potentially treacherous neutrals, as well as unease over women’s growing economic power, and moral panic over the changing sexual mores of the younger generations (typified by parental concern about young women volunteering at hospitals where they could mix with men, and over young men at the front visiting prostitutes and contracting venereal disease). Deviant sex, espionage and blackmail were closely entwined in the popular imagination, thanks in part to the pre-war Redl affair and Caillaux affair

Although surveillance turned up nothing incriminating, Ladoux was so convinced that Mata Hari was a spy that he offered to make her a double agent in return for large sums of money, with a new mission of infiltrating Germany’s web of spies in France and abroad. Already under suspicion of being a German spy, in constant need of money, and with her lucrative dancing career mostly behind her, Mata Hari happily accepted the offer to become a real spy for France. 

Unfortunately for her this glamorous new career proved brief and fatal. On her first and only “mission” she traveled to Belgium and then Spain, and in November 1916 she continued her journey via Britain. When the ship put in at Cornwall, however, British agents arrested her on suspicion of being a spy and took her back to London. Here she told interrogators that she was indeed a spy – but one working for French counterintelligence. 

For some reason (perhaps excessive secrecy, or just fear of looking amateurish to his British colleagues) Ladoux now denied any connection with Mata Hari. Nevertheless the Brits, probably concluding that a washed-up exotic dancer was too implausible to be a real spy, released her and shipped her back to Spain. In December 1916, still hoping to prove her worth to Ladoux, she seduced the German military attaché in Madrid, Major Arnold Kalle, stringing him along with worthless gossip and made-up secrets about French politics, and eliciting what she believed were important military secrets in return. 

This piece of extracurricular espionage proved her undoing. The amateur spy failed to deduce that Kalle had realized exactly what she was up to, and was feeding her out-of-date and made-up information, deceiving her just as she believed she was deceiving him. When she passed these bogus “secrets” on to Ladoux, it only seemed to confirm that she was in fact a German double agent, as he’d originally suspected. Worse still, on December 13, 1916 French spies monitoring German radio traffic detected a secret transmission from Kalle to Berlin, in which he passed along secrets he attributed to her, using her codename “H21” – even though she claimed that she only received this codename recently. For this codename to already be known to Berlin, Ladoux concluded, she must have been in communication with German intelligence long before, and had therefore been hoodwinking the French all along.

However Ladoux failed to see that this was was all in fact an elaborate counterintelligence gambit perpetrated by Germany’s spymasters. The Germans were aware that the Allies had cracked this particular cipher, and were using it with the knowledge any messages they sent would be decoded, all in an attempt to sow confusion and hopefully trick the French into revealing some of their intelligence assets. Caught in the middle of this war of deceit was Mata Hari, a cheerful opportunist who now found herself far out of her depth.

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After she returned to France, on February 13, 1917, at Ladoux’s order French counterintelligence agents arrested Mata Hari as a German agent. Taken to military prison, she immediately denied the charges, writing, “I am innocent. Someone is fooling with me,” and blaming “French counterespionage, since I am in its service, and I have only acted on its instructions.” Nonetheless her notorious reputation, and her habit of embellishing or fictionalizing parts of her own past, effectively signed her death warrant: the French press and public were all too ready to believe that a foreign woman, famed for her loose morals and ability to seduce powerful men, had sold out the Republic, leading to the deaths of thousands of brave young Frenchmen. 

Mata Hari’s trial began on July 24, 1917, but with cards stacked against the 41-year old former exotic dancer, its outcome was never really in doubt. The prosecutors never presented any proof that she had actually been working for German intelligence, except for a mysterious receipt showing a payment of 5,000 francs, which it turned out was actually a gift from her old lover the baron (sent anonymously, of course, to protect his reputation). The court also prevented her defense lawyers from calling the baron or Mata Hari’s maid in the Netherlands to testify to clear up this apparently incriminating detail. 

The government did present evidence of her numerous encounters with French officers and officials – suggesting (but hardly proving) that she had extracted secrets from them; unsurprisingly, virtually none of her old lovers came forward to testify on her behalf, as this would have tarnished their reputation as well. Then the court heard of the ill-fated trip to Spain, the arrest by British intelligence in Cornwall, and the intercepted radio messages in a cracked cipher, which nobody knew had been sent on purpose to seal her doom. Most damning, Mata Hari herself admitted to receiving the codename “H21” earlier than she had previously stated, at the May 1916 meeting.

Duly convicted on eight charges of espionage, on October 15, 1917, “the greatest woman spy of the century,” who was in reality no such thing, was shot at 5 a.m. by a firing squad of twelve men at a barracks in Vincennes, a suburb of Paris. Her final words: “It is unbelievable.” 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 Badass Facts About Jason Statham
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Jason Statham is one of the preeminent action heroes of a generation—some would say he’s our last action hero. On the screen, he's been a hitman, a transporter, a con man, a veteran, and a whole host of other unsavory, but oddly endearing, tough guys. Before he stepped foot on his first movie set, though, Statham had a past life that would rival any of the colorful characters he’s brought to the screen. To celebrate his 50th birthday, we’re digging into what makes this English bruiser tick with these 10 fascinating facts about Jason Statham.

1. DIVING WAS HIS FIRST CALLING.

Before becoming a big-screen tough guy, Jason Statham exuded grace and fluidity as one of the world’s top competitive divers in the early 1990s. He spent 12 years as part of the British National Diving Squad, highlighted by competing in the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand.

Though he was an elite diver, Statham never qualified for the Olympics, which he admits is still a “sore point” for him. "I started too late," he has said of his diving career. "It probably wasn't my thing. I should have done a different sport."

2. HE DABBLED IN MODELING.

With his diving career over, Statham entered the world of modeling for the fashion company French Connection. If his rugged image doesn’t seem to naturally lend itself to the world of male modeling, that was exactly what the company was going for.

“We chose Jason because we wanted our model to look like a normal guy," Lilly Anderson, a spokesperson for French Connection, said in a 1995 interview with the Independent. "His look is just right for now—very masculine and not too male-modelly."

3. HE DANCED HALF-NAKED IN A COUPLE OF MUSIC VIDEOS.

A word of warning: The internet never forgets. Back in 2015, two ‘90s music videos went viral—“Comin’ On” by The Shamen and “Run to the Sun” by Erasure—and it’s not because the songs were just that good. It’s because both videos featured a half-naked, and quite oily, Jason Statham curiously dancing away in the background.

Both make liberal use of Statham’s lack of modesty, which is a far cry from the slick suits and commando gear we’d later see him sporting in The Transporter and Expendables series. So which one is your favorite? Leopard-print Speedo Statham from “Comin’ On” or his Silver Surfer look from “Run to the Sun”? And no, “both” isn’t an option. (Though “neither” is acceptable.)

4. GUY RITCHIE CAST HIM BECAUSE HE WAS SELLING KNOCKOFF JEWELRY AND PERFUME ON THE STREET.

After years of high dives, modeling, and pelvic gyrations, Statham was still looking to make a real living in the late ‘90s. His next odd job? Selling knockoff perfume and jewelry on London street corners. Luckily, that type of real-world hoodlum was exactly what director Guy Ritchie needed for 1998's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Ritchie was introduced to Statham through his modeling gig at French Connection and saw the potential this real-world con man had for the movie. He wrote the role of Bacon specifically for Statham, which would end up being the movie that propelled him to Hollywood stardom.

5. JOHN CARPENTER WANTED HIM AS THE LEAD IN GHOSTS OF MARS.

Though Statham gained acclaim for his role in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he wasn’t quite a leading man yet. Director John Carpenter wanted to change that by casting him as James “Desolation” Williams, the main character in Ghosts of Mars.

While Carpenter was convinced that Statham was ready for the role, the producers weren’t. They pushed the director to cast someone with more name value, eventually settling on Ice Cube. Statham stayed in the movie in a smaller role as Sgt. Jericho Butler.

6. HE REGULARLY DOES HIS OWN STUNTS.

Jason Statham in Wild Card (2015).
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In addition to being in impeccable shape, Statham also takes pride in doing many of his own stunts in his movies, from hand-to-hand combat to dangling from a helicopter 3000 feet above downtown Los Angeles. In fact, he’s almost dogmatic in his belief that actors should be doing their own stunts.

“I'm inspired by the people who could do their own work,” the actor said. “Bruce Lee never had stunt doubles and fight doubles, or Jackie Chan or Jet Li. I've been in action movies where there is a face replacement and I'm fighting with a double, and it's embarrassing.”

The worst offenders? Superhero movies. And Statham isn't shy about sharing his thoughts on those:

"You slip on a cape and you put on the tights and you become a superhero? They're not doing anything! They're just sitting in their trailer. It's absolutely, 100 percent created by stunt doubles and green screen. How can I get excited about that?"

7. FILMING EXPENDABLES 3 ALMOST KILLED HIM.

For all the authenticity that Statham likes to bring to the screen by doing his own stunts, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. While filming an action scene for Expendables 3, the brakes failed on a three-ton stunt truck Statham was driving, sending it off a cliff and into the Black Sea.

If you've ever wondered if the real Statham was anything like the movie version, his underwater escape from a mammoth truck should answer that.

"It's the closest I've ever been to drowning,” Statham said on Today. “I've done a lot of scuba diving; I've done a lot of free diving ... No matter how much of that you've done, it doesn't teach you to breathe underwater ... I came very close to drowning. It was a very harrowing experience."

8. HE PRACTICES A RANGE OF MARTIAL ARTS.

Statham’s fitness routine is about more than just weights and core work. The actor is also involved in a variety of different fighting disciplines like boxing, judo, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Out of everything he does to stay in shape, it’s the martial arts that have the been most helpful for Statham’s onscreen presence. “That’s what I have to give most of my time to these days: training for what I have to do in terms of providing action in an authentic manner," he told Men's Health

Statham is not alone in his passion for martial arts; director Guy Ritchie is also a black belt in jiu-jitsu and a brown belt in karate. When Men’s Health asked Statham if the two ever sparred, he responded, “I remember when we started out, we’d go on a press tour for Lock, Stock… and we’d be moving all the furniture out of the way in the hotel room, trying to choke each other out.”

After all, what are collaborators for?

9. HE’S WELL AWARE SOME OF HIS MOVIES HAVE BEEN DUDS.

When asked by Esquire if he ever watched one of his movies during the premiere and thought "Oh, no ...," his response was a very self-aware: "Yeah, I think I've said that more often than not. Yeah."

He went on to rattle off his Guy Ritchie movies, The Bank Job, Transporter 1 and 2 (not 3), and Crank as being among his favorite films. As for the others, the actor joked, “And the rest is sh*t."

He clarified that remark as a joke and said, “I mean, you do a lot of films. You're always aiming for something and trying to push yourself to do something good.”

He then compared his work to the inner workings of a watch, saying, “A movie, it's like a very complicated timepiece. There's a lot of wheels in a watch. And some of those wheels, if they don't turn right, then, you know, the watch ain't gonna tell the time."

10. HIS MOVIES HAVE MADE MORE THAN $1.5 BILLION IN THE U.S. ALONE.

Statham's films may have a tough time impressing critics, but audiences and studio executives can’t get enough. Taken as a whole, Statham’s filmography has raked in just a touch more than $1.5 billion in the United States, with the worldwide total standing at $5.1 billion.

A lot of this is due to his more recent entry into the Fast and Furious franchise, but he’s also had seven movies cross the $100 million mark worldwide outside of that series. This isn’t an accident; Statham knows exactly what type of movie keeps the lights on, as he explained in an interview with The Guardian.

“So if you've got a story about a depressed doctor whose estranged wife doesn't wanna be with him no more, and you put me in it, people aren't gonna put money on the table. Whereas if you go, 'All he does is get in the car, hit someone on the head, shoot someone in the f*cking feet,' then, yep, they'll give you $20 million. You can't fault these people for wanting to make money.”

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The 5 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
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Nicolas Cage stars in Knowing (2009).
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If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

If any film stands as a proper influence on The Twilight Zone and its use of science-fiction and fantasy to mask political and civil issues, it’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, a Cold War-era parable about an alien named Klaatu who arrives on Earth carrying a warning about warfare. Naturally, all humans want to do is shoot him.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. KNOWING (2009)

The histrionics of Nicolas Cage: You either like them or you don’t. Knowing is Cage at half-caf: While he enjoys a few meltdown scenes, he’s largely reserved here as an astrophysics professor who stumbles onto information that could herald the end of the world.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

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