In a healthier film culture, Garbo the Spy would make history. Its great pleasure is that it remakes history: telling the real life story of a WWII counterspy Joan Pujol Garcia through the sophisticated use of fictional film footage. It was Garcia who m
sled the Nazis about a planned maneuver at Calais—misdirection that facilitated the American’s D-Day landing on Omaha beach in Normandy. That signal event was already mythic before Steven Spielberg revived it in Saving Private Ryan but it’s part of the familiar history that Garbo the Spy renders fascinating. It is one of the cleverest political documentaries ever made.
Director Edmon Roch understands how history and politics often come to us through romantic supposition. His collage of Hollywood scenes isn’t snarky like Atomic Café (1982), a facile mockumentary that flattered modern viewers’ superiority to the past. Turning movie clips from The Secret Code, Mata Hari, Pimpernel Smith, The Invisible Agent, Mr. Moto’s Last Warning to Our Man in Havana, The Longest Day to Patton into puzzle pieces, Roch assembles an alternate reality to the life of Pujol, an adventurer born in Barcelona in 1912. One of those politically neutral personalities—a person willing to work for Allies as much as Nazis—Pujol was the only person awarded on both sides of the war, receiving England’s OBE and Nazi Germany’s Iron Cross II. Pujol admitted “I fought against injustice and iniquity with the only weapons at my disposal.”
Through layers of fiction, Roch inquires about the historicity of film (as in color Dachau documentary footage of a smiling P.O.W. eating an apple and looking into the camera). In Garbo the Spy’s second half, Roch’s concept feels overly worked and suffers from a lack of narrative drive even though emphasis is on the forward-motion of Pujol’s mysterious, post-war activities. It needs a personage, not a cipher. Including photographs and film of the actual Pujol has its own powerful impact (reality) but it’s less remarkable than exploring the mythology of espionage and penetrating the mystery of heroism.
Garbo the Spy suggests that we don’t entirely see through war kitsch, so might as well use it skeptically as persiflage, not actual history. Roch respects the difference. Creating a brilliant, instructive analysis of how history becomes legend has something to do with not falling for the usual liberal pieties. Historian Nigel West explains Pujol’s “determination to prevent political extremism from destroying civilization.” Roch’s cunning montage, sly tone and tricky music score avoid perpetrating such specious legend as Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, which unacceptably turned more recent history into glib, heartless fantasy—hipster kitsch. Way better than that, Garbo the Spy complicates historical truth; it is a thinking person’s Carlos.