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Garbo: The Spy - Movie Review - 2009

The Man Who Saved The World

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Garbo: The Spy - Movie Review - 2009

Garbo: The Spy - Poster Art

First Run Features
This wonderfully entertaining and educating documentary is a real life spy thriller that profiles the mystery man, a double agent during World War II, who who changed the course of history. He was the most important, successful and daring spy of his day, an unidentified legend in his own time, the only one to receive distinguished service honors from both the British and Germans.

The Germans gave him the code name the code name Arabel, the British called him Garbo -- because he was such a great actor that he managed to perform miracles of deception for them. Yes, bottom line, he did turn out to be truly in service to the British, and was solely responsible for giving the Allies the upper hand at D-Day at Normandy, a real turning point in determining the outcome of World War II.

Until long after the war, only a handful of people knew his true identity, and they weren't telling. Furthermore, he'd disappeared after the war, and everyone assumed he was dead.

Fortunately, Nigel West, a former intelligence agent who now teaches the history of espionage, remained curious and kept looking for information about Garbo. West is one of the sources interviewed in the documentary, and he reveals much of what he's discovered about Garbo, and how he came to his knowledge. It's a fascinating tale.

Smart Filmmaking

Filmmaker Edmon Roch is an extremely clever storyteller, revealing one detail after another about the legendary Garbo, his background, personality, career and final days. Roch engages his audience fully in the intrigue, creating an aura of suspense and an ambiance of uncertainty even about things that we already know. That's what makes this documentary such a treat. And, that's why I have no hesitation about filling you in on some of the real details -- I know they won't spoil your pleasure in watching the film.

The Real Details

Garbo's real name was Joan Pujol Garcia. He was a Spaniard, from a well-to-do family in Barcelona, and he lead quite an ordinary bourgeois life until the political situation in Spain changed. He was cleverly opportunistic in surviving the difficulties presented by the Spanish Civil War. But, eventually, he found himself in need of a job. As though he were applying for ordinary employment -- like dish washing, for example -- he approached the British Embassy in Madrid, offering his services as a spy for the Allies. The Brits had no idea of who he was, and sent him packing. So, he turned around and went to the Germans, and offered to spy for them, saying he'd move to London and gather information about the Brits. They took him on. He, as Arabel, began sending reports about British politics, industry and military plans and he soon became an invaluable and trusted source for the Germans.

He played the spy game well, convincing the Germans that he was filing his reports from London, while he was actually living near Lisbon, and getting all of his information from the newspapers and public library. Similarly, he claimed to have network of 22 sub-agents working for him -- and got money to pay them -- but they were all invented personalities, each with a distinct yet intertwined set of exacting details about their life situations, their needs and psyches. Each had a richly complex story.

Arabel's intrigues were absolutely brilliant. Sometimes his reports contained glaring errors -- such as reporting that British dock workers offered information for a liter of wine (British dock workers drink beer!) or that summer in London was so hot that officials had moved to Brighton temporarily, and that he was going there to join them (London never gets that hot!) -- but, his German handlers never questioned the veracity of his reports, and he gained their complete trust, often by having two of his fake sub-spies independently validate the findings of each other.

Once he was well-established with the Germans, he went to the Brits again, offering to work for them. This time, they thought he'd be useful to them because of the knowledge he had of German espionage operations and the influence he had with his handlers. They'd seen that he had instigated, for example, the deployment of a huge German air strike against a convoy of ships that he'd simply made up!

The Brits actually brought him to England for the first time, and orchestrated his continuing to feed the Germans false information. The plan paid off at Normandy, when Garbo convinced the Germans that the D-Day attack was a mere diversion for a larger, more threatening attack was going to take place in Pas de Calais. General Patton was set up as a decoy! The Germans moved their troops to Pas de Calais, and that's why there was no counter attack at Normandy, and the allies were able to move forward. It was a decisive turning point in the war.

After the war, he did indeed vanish -- into a new life. He left everything -- including his family -- in Madrid, and went to Venezuela, where he reestablished himself and started a new family. After 30 years of research, Nigel West located him, and invited him to come to Buckingham Palace to receive the honors he'd not yet claimed. Garbo said yes, he'd like to do that. And so the story of Joan Pujol Garcia, aka Garbo, goes....

Superb Storytelling

Roch uses expert witnesses -- Nigel West and others, including MI5 specialist Mark Seaman, who investigated Pujol’s every step; journalist Xavier Vinader, who interviewed Pujol in great detail; The Countess of Romanones Aline Griffith, who was a spy during World War II and worked for American intelligence in Spain; both of Pujol’s families, his first in Spain and his second and later one in Venezuela; and last but not least, Juan Pujol himself -- debriefing all about Garbo's behavior, dramatic flare and unusual tactics, and the times. Clips of popular period spy films -- those in which Sir Alex Guinness and other actors play characters based on Garbo in films based on Garbo's story, as well as clips from the great Greta's Mata Hari -- as well as rare footage of Nazi youth rallies, from the Spanish Civil War and other fighting and street scenes, and period animation tracing German aggressions throughout Europe and illustrating Nazi ideology ethos. In his creation and use of montage, Roch shows a rare sensitivity and skill in his juxtaposition of images to express irony and make for moments of unexpected humor. He also uses his always subtle and appropriate sound track to add warmth and charm to the tale. Garbo -- whom we eventually come to know as Joan Pujol Garcia -- deserves no less than a documentary profile that tells his tale in a way that creates contemplation about how humans relate to and create their history. And, in that, Roch certainly delivers!

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Film Details:

  • Garbo the Spy
  • Directors: Edmon Roch
  • Theatrical Release Date: November 18, 2011 (limited)
  • Running Time: 88 mins.
  • Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
  • Country: Spain
  • Locations: Barcelona, Madrid, London and Venezuela
  • Language: English, and Spanish, Catalan, German with English subtitles
  • Distribution Company: First Run Features
  • Official Website
  • Official Trailer

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