Film Review: Garbo the Spy

Award-winning Spanish documentary about World War II’s most infamous double agent eventually evolves into a fascinating exposé of highly creative and unconventional espionage work steeped in literary-like invention, deceits, audacity and mor

Garbo The Spy begins as an annoying pile-up of sometimes familiar archival war footage and film clips lifted from old spy movies (a hodgepodge from Mr. Moto’s Last Warning to the classic Mata Hari to Our Man in Havana and much in between). But once past this pointless exercise (unless it’s to get viewers into a spy-watching mood), Edmon Roch’s first feature becomes an intriguing look at Juan Pujol Garcia, a middle-class Spaniard of shifting alliances who flirted with opposing sides (the Nationalists and Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, the Nazis and British during World War II) before becoming a double agent—and a very important one—on the side of the Allies.

Pujol Garcia’s coup was by way of a modus operandi that he perfected, if not invented. His genius was to create and make credible, from the relative comfort of a neutral Lisbon, a network of fake Nazi informers supposedly operating inside Britain who were providing the Germans with information he devised for them with flair. This tactic not only rendered him genuine to the Germans but paved the way for his biggest contribution to the Allied war effort—protecting the historic D-Day Allied landing on the French coast by feeding bogus intel to the Nazis. Such ability to fake earned the Spanish spy the code name “Garbo,” in deference to another consummate actor.

Using his nest of “informers” who only inhabited his imagination, Pujol Garcia helped execute the great deception that led the Nazis to shift their focus and believe that the invasion (the highly secretive Operation Overlord) would happen not at Normandy, but at Pas de Calais at another time.

Garbo, at first rejected by MI5 before the U.K. spy unit tapped him, never fired one shot during his service as a double agent but was no slouch: He even dared to create an imaginary widow for one of his invented British-based informers and reap her death benefits from the Germans.

Helping viewers immerse themselves in Pujol Garcia’s story are an array of talking heads—journalists, former spies, intel pundits, family members. These include novelist and intelligence expert Nigel West, who many decades after the war tracked down Garbo, believed dead, in Venezuela; MI5 specialist Mark Seaman, who investigated Pujol Garcia; journalist Xavier Vinader, who conducted in-depth interviews with the spy; and the poised and elegant Aline Griffith, the Countess of Romanones who was a World War II spy working for American intelligence in Spain. She will be of especial interest to female viewers.

Deception may well have been Pujol Garcia’s addiction, for he also carried it successfully into his private life. His disappearing act in 1945 took him to Venezuela, where he built a second life and new family unknown to those he left behind. Garbo The Spy delivers members of the two families, the first forged in Spain before the secret escape to Venezuela. The topper here is Pujol Garcia himself, emerging in the doc when he returns from seclusion to accept his M.B.E. recognition. (Ironically, the clueless Germans awarded him an Iron Cross right after the war.)

Pujol Garcia, who died in 1988, emerges a good guy, although a coolly sneaky one. But isn’t that dichotomy what we want most from our spies, whether they perform in real life or the movies—as long as they’re on our side? Like Garbo’s m.o., this doc about him is slippery but effective business.