Garbo: The Spy
Dir: Edmon Roch
First Run Features
World War II was almost certainly the last great era of espionage. Since the end of the last Great War, the “enemy” has become less clearly delineated and technology has long surpassed human capabilities, all while WWII has cast a long shadow over Western intelligence agencies. That’s the case made by historians like Tim Weiner, whose Legacy of Ashes effectively put forth a history of the CIA where its origins, reputation and strategies were all bound to the thrilling roots of its predecessor, the OSS. And with stories like the one presented in Edmon Roch’s documentary Garbo: The Spy, it’s easy to see why that era still holds such power.
Garbo is essentially the tale of a self-made super spy, one Juan Pujol Garcia, a Spaniard who took it upon himself to make up for his self-described cowardice during the Spanish Civil War by undermining the Nazi efforts in Europe. When MI5 rejected Garcia’s advances on several occasions, Garcia turned towards the Nazis themselves, offering them his fabricated resources all while completely misleading them. Inventing an entire network of operatives, Garcia was able to divert Nazi resources enough that he finally caught Britain’s eye and became one of their top agents, given the code name “Garbo” because the Brits believed him to be “the greatest actor in the world.”
Garbo: The Spy is intended as a profile of one of the most important yet least known figures of World War II, weaving together commentary from a handful of expert sources and compatriots, including Nigel West, the intelligence guru and novelist who helped Pujol pen his memoirs. But Roch also takes a more eccentric route with the documentary, inserting footage from classic films like Mata Hari and even Our Man in Havana, which Graham Greene based off of what he knew of “Garbo” from his days in British intelligence. While Pujol’s story is endlessly fascinating, particularly his role in the success of the D-Day operations, Roch’s treatment of it is oddly artless and clumsy.
Part of that awkwardness is likely due to the fact that Roch is a first time director, and there is a certain uncertainty that pervades the film. Towards its middle, Roch brings the film to a complete halt in order to introduce the talking heads that give the film its structure, almost as though he suddenly remembered he should fill the audience in on who these experts are. Garbo likewise could have benefitted from having a few more subjects filling in the details of Garbo’s life, as well as a clearer order to the information. That said, Pujol’s life undoubtedly made it difficult to stage this as a normal documentary since so little footage of Pujol exists due to his disappearance after World War II, which was only interrupted in the ’80s, shortly before his death.
Even with those flaws, the story presented within Garbo: The Spy is riveting, a testament to how powerful an individual spy could be in the days before satellites and wiretaps. Roch does a service by shedding further light on this vastly important historical figure that remains so unknown to the masses and the research presented here is impressive. Roch may not yet have a handle on the documentary form but there’s no denying that he knows an incredible story when he sees one.
by Nick Hanover