Garbo the Spy tells the true tale of the Allies’ secret weapon [MOVIE REVIEW]
“Garbo the Spy,” a new documentary from novice director Edmon Roch, tells the tale of one of the Allies’ secret weapons in World War II, Juan Pujol Garcia.
Pujol, a Spaniard from Barcelona, had a checkered history during the Spanish Civil War. Drafted by the Republicans, he went into hiding. Joining the army some time later, he eventually crossed over to the Nationalist side for what appeared to be an act of self-preservation. Following the end of the Civil War and toward the beginning of the Second World War, Pujol, for whatever unknown or suspicious reasons, attempted to offer his services as a spy to the British contingent in Spain. The Iberian Peninsula was a hotbed of underground and surreptitious activity by both sides during the war – Spaniards and Portuguese spying on fellow countrymen or on the British or on the Germans. The British turned down this “drop in” amateur and so Pujol offered his services to the Germans, who immediately accepted his offer to spy on the British. Pujol, code-name Alaric, was determined to sabotage the Germans from within.
Basing himself in Lisbon, Alaric immediately set up a network, code-named Arabel, of non-existent spies, a dummy corporation so to speak, in order to feed false information to the Nazis. Claiming to be located in England, supplying his employers with a steady stream of information culled from the daily newspapers, the Nazis were impressed with the accuracy of his information. Realizing that he did, of necessity, need to be in Britain if his one-man campaign of subterfuge was to succeed, he again approached the British. Finally recognizing the value in this self-employed double agent and impressed with the false network he had created, they brought him to England where he continued to supply information that was fed by the British, some true, some not. But Garbo’s greatest achievement was soon to come.
The Nazis, aware that the Allies were preparing for an invasion of France on the Normandy coast, were hard at work trying to determine where, more precisely, this invasion was to take place. Garbo’s important task, as set to him by his British handlers in MI5, was to create the impression that the Allies intended to land at the Pas de Calais, far north of the intended target across the Channel. With Garbo’s imaginary network of spies and well-placed false information, including the reported build-up of a dummy army. With General Patton installed nearby as the leader of the fake army and surrounded by prop-like weapons placed near the Pas de Calais, the Germans located the bulk of their Western war machinery well north of the actual target. And we all know how that turned out.
For his efforts in aiding the Allied cause, Pujol was awarded an MBE. But even more remarkably, the Germans awarded Alaric the Iron Cross for his efforts in adding the Nazi cause. Not only had the Germans never caught on, but they had been funding Alaric’s vast (imaginary) network of 27 spies throughout the war to the tune of more than $300,000. Alaric’s last Nazi handler died in the 1970s, still convinced of his authenticity.
Deciding not to go the route of so many “docudramas” by using reenactments, Roch’s choices were quite limited as very few photos and documents remained on the existence of Juan Pujol Garcia who, after the war, staged his own death and disappeared in Venezuela. Instead, Roch uses clips from Hollywood films about spies and the war to illustrate what was happening at the time. Most effective and humorous was the use of clips from the film “Our Man in Havana,” as Graham Greene had based the exploits of his protagonist James Wormold on Garbo. In the film, Wormold, a vacuum salesman, is approached by the British Secret Service to spy on the local government. Like Garbo, Wormold sets up a fictitious network of spies and false documents, all of which are being paid for by the Brits. Greene, it turns out, was well versed in all aspects of the Garbo story as he had joined MI6 during the war, appointed to monitoring counter-espionage in the Iberian Peninsula.
“Garbo” is narrated primarily by four individuals creating more the impression of a talking book rather than that of a film. Although this narrative technique eventually gels and becomes entertaining, even riveting depending on the Hollywood film clip used as illustration, Roch makes a stylistic mistake by cutting back and forth between his experts without crediting them until a segment near the middle of the documentary where he stops the narrative to introduce his experts as though it was a final credits sequence. This is a big mistake from several standpoints, not the least of which is the aforementioned derailing of the narrative, but also his underestimation of an audience’s desire, in real time, to know the name and profession of the talking head and to be reminded of it throughout the film. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Joe Blow, Historian at Fictitious U, or in the case of “Garbo,” Nigel West, Intelligence expert or Mark Seaman, MI5 specialist.
But go see for yourself and discover an important moment in time that changed history.
Opening at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills on November 25.
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