Saturday, June 11, 2011


Edmon Roch, 2009

Though it isn't a genre film, I saw Garbo: The Spy a few days ago at the Philadelphia film festival and thought I should review it. For those of you who are WWII history nerds like myself, Garbo is definitely worth watching. For everyone else, I think it could go either way. There are dozens of amazing stories about espionage, cryptographers, and counter-intelligence agents in WWII and though this is really just one of many, it's wonderful to learn about what people are capable of during times of national and international duress. On a similar, more genre-related note, if you can get a hold of the out of print Criterion DVD of Peeping Tom, check out the special features. Peeping Tom's writer was an important British cryptographer and there's a documentary about his life and involvement in the war.

Juan Pujol Garcia was a Spaniard who decided he should give something back to the war effort and, independently, went into business as an intelligence agent. He offered his services to the Germans, who immediately accepted, and to the British, who took a little longer to hire him. At the height of the war he was an incredibly active double agent, feeding the Third Reich a blend of true and false information that led to Garcia's major achievement: the orchestration of D-Day and troops landing at Normandy.

Working with his British handler, MI5 agent Tomas Harris, Harris and Garcia created a team of 30 sub-agents who were all fictional identities portrayed by Garcia himself. He was given the code name Garbo because of his purportedly amazing acting abilities. The two men also wrote thousands of letters and telegrams during the war, which was the primary way they spread information to the Nazis. The Nazis suspected nothing for some reason, praised Garcia's work and paid him well. According to the documentary, they are responsible for funding a lot of the British Intelligence effort during the end of the war (!!!).

About ten years ago Tomas Harris allowed Garcia's case file to be made public, so between that and extensive research done by journalists in the European intelligence community, there is enough information to fill out Garbo's story. There is also a touching conclusion, which I won't ruin for you if you plan to see the film or read one of the books about him.

Overall I'm not sure how I would rate this. It's a fascinating story that is well researched, but doesn't make a particularly exciting documentary. Though Garbo only runs for 86 minutes, it feels dry and boring at times. The documentary is mostly made up of interviews with journalists, some of whom are more entertaining than others. To break up the lengthy head shots there are some interesting Nazi propaganda clips and clips from spy films, but these were also on the long side and only peripherally had to do with the story.

Garbo is a Spanish production, but with interviews in English and Spanish and some clips in Catalan and German, which is befitting of Garcia himself. It's Edmon Roch's debut film and won a few European awards, which, despite my criticisms, it deserves. I'm not sure when it will be released, but it's just aching to be on the History Channel, so I'm sure it will be around sometime soon.

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