In 1905 the tail-end of the Belle Époque in Paris, home to Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. denis found a new star – a Javanese princess, of princely Hindu birth, immersed in the traditions of sacred Indian dance since childhood, newly arrived in France to demonstrate exotic stripteases where she removed a series of veils until she was only wearing a bejeweled bra and headdress. The newspapers went wild – she was was “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair,” her face “makes a strange foreign impression” and her dance was “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.”
Of course Mata Hari was actually Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, a divorced mother of two from Leeuwarden in The Netherlands. In her very unhappy marriage to Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, Mata Hari had spent a few years in Java, and escaping her husband’s alcoholism, violence and keeping of a concubine, she had immersed herself in local culture, adopting an artistic name which meant “sun” in Malay.
The most famous part of Mata Hari’s story is its tragic ending. Her execution for treason by firing squad in 1917 has left her a reputation as a double-crossing femme fatale, which in truth she probably did very little to earn. A number of films have been made of this latter part of her life, mostly benefiting from the fact that you cannot libel the dead. Perhaps she would have enjoyed her notoriety still lingering a hundred years after her death, or perhaps she would have said this unfairly negates her life of self-creation and struggle.
This documentary is the best I can find currently available on her life.