huge and compelling

The postman has just delivered a very light package. The Mata Hari DVD. I look deeply into Greta Garbo's eyes. This film defined for millions of people the image of the woman who, it had turned out, was not my great-aunt. Our auntie A, who still thinks she is related, enjoyed it as a girl in the cinema.

I watch as Greta Garbo – in the role of Mata Hari – wrestles with a drunk Russian general and desperately tries to rip a telephone from his hands. She grabs a revolver and pulls the trigger. He collapses. Dead.

When Johannes Zelle and his twin brothers Cornelis and Ari saw this scene in the film, they went ballistic. That their sister had been portrayed as a spy was one thing, but to suggest that Margreet was a killer? They didn’t waste a moment, took MGM and Tuschinski Cinema to court and demanded that the film be removed from circulation. This was in 1932, fifteen years after her execution.

Mata Hari Official Trailer #1 - Lionel Barrymore Movie (1931)

The brothers didn’t succeed, which meant history records their sister as a heartless killer, and all thanks to superstar Greta Garbo, because it was for her that people came to the cinema in droves. She dances and wriggles, smiling sphinxlike, slurps champagne and caviar, smokes like a chimney, has to flick men off her like flies and falls in love with a much younger aviator who becomes blind. And yet all that wasn’t enough. There had to be a murder too.

The story of this femme fatale and spy was hugely appealing to the film industry. The film Dishonored, with Marlene Dietrich in the lead, came out that same year. This is quite remarkable in itself: the two biggest stars of the silver screen portrayed Mata Hari at the same time. Dietrich tinkers away on the piano in her cell just before an officer collects her for the execution. She uses his sword as a mirror, puts her hat on, gives her cat to the accompanying priest, paints her lips one more time when she is in front of the firing squad, inserts the lipstick into the top of her nylon stockings, is shot and falls down. Dead.

Dishonored - Josef von Sternberg retrospectief 31-3 t/m 24-4 Eye Film Instituut Nederland

Scriptwriters continued embroider on the history of Mata Hari, as if her colourful, adventurous life was not enough. About the story of Dishonored, a reviewer wrote much later: ‘Idiotic, totally obsolete and entirely unbelievable.’ In 1932, the New York Times gushed: ‘She [Garbo] gives a brilliant portrayal.’

I start looking for information about the first Mata Hari film from 1920, i.e., immediately after the First World War. It starred Asta Nielsen, then a major silent film star. I cannot find much about the film; others who have done more research doubt whether it ever existed.

Actresses fought for the role of Mata Hari. French actress, Jeanne Moreau, was highly praised for her role as Agent H 21, but reviewers sliced and diced the film itself (1961). In 2003, Maruschka Detmers had another reason to creep into Mata Hari's skin: like Margaretha Zelle, she was also a girl from the provinces – she came from Coevorden – who also moved to Paris and became an actress.

The worst film stars Sylvia Kristel from 1985. In the first shot you see her dancing with her breasts exposed, and that’s how it is for the most of the rest of film, except when she runs across a First World War battlefield, brandishing a revolver. A reviewer described it as: ‘A film that makes as much sense as a penguin on a unicycle.’

The story of Mata Hari is still being filmed. On Youtube I saw that Rutger Hauer and Gerard Depardie star in a twelve-part TV series, a major English / Russian co-production that was released last year.

Which film would Mata Hari have found the best? Not the popular Dutch series with Josine van Dalsum from the 1980s. It was too honest for someone who loved to stretch the truth. Nor those with Dietrich and Kristel. The first is too ludicrous for words, the other too vulgar. Now that I've been busy with her for a while, I think I know Mata Hari a little bit. I think she would choose Garbo. Playful, tough, dramatic, grand and compelling. The way she liked to see herself. Except for that revolver.

more films

The flood of films about Mata Hari does not subside, certainly not in this memorial year. Here’s a selection: The German broadcaster ZDF is busy with a documentary lasting almost an hour. At ARD, another large broadcaster, the final scenes have been filmed for a documentary-drama about Mata Hari and her relationship with Dr Elisabeth Schragmüller, the head of a German spy training centre in Antwerp. And then there is also the Dutch/American production Mata Hari the Naked Spy by Machiel Amorison (whose great-great-grandmother was in the same class as Margaret Zelle), in which Mata Hari’s story is told from a psychological perspective.