SIFF, Week Two: Garbo: The Spy (Spain, 2009, 89 mins) — Anniversary Post

Sometimes I choose which movies to see during the festival, and sometimes the movies choose me. Garbo: The Spy was one of the latter. I’d seen the trailer for the film during the festival, thought it looked interested, had that day off, had a voucher, and decided to go see it. It ended up being the archetype of the “gems” that I look for each year at SIFF: movies that almost fly under my radar and end up being some of the best films I see that festival. And while it’s not the first documentary I’ve seen, it’s the one that sparked my love of documentaries to this day.

When I saw My Year Without Sex, I almost missed the beginning of the movie.  With this film, I almost forgot to bring my ticket.  And then the bus almost forgot to stop for me.

Apparently, it was a good day for movies, as there were a lot of people, both at this screening and at the screening for 25th Hour, which I saw later that night.  Heck, it was a beautiful day for anything.  Maybe Edward Norton did bring the sun out.

The AMC (aka Pacific Place Cinema) is on the fourth floor of Pacific Place, a shopping mall in the middle of Downtown Seattle.  Once inside the theater, I got a pretty good seat about halfway down the second grouping of seats.  I had one empty seat next to me.  A man and a woman came in as the theater was filling up.  He decided to sit in back, where one seat was available, and she decided to sit next to me.  I spent a moment or two looking behind me to see where the man was sitting, then sat in thought for a bit before putting away my notepad and pencil and asking the woman next to me if she wanted to sit next to her boyfriend/husband, since I was here by myself and didn’t mind moving.  She said she’d ask him.  A few minutes later, he came down with her from his seat against the back wall, she thanked me, and I went up to claim my seat in back.  The two older women (seventies?) whom I sat next to both said what a nice thing it was that I had done.  I just thought it made sense.

Documentaries depend, above all, on their subjects.  If the subject is interesting, then half of the documentarian’s work is done for him or her.

Garbo: The Spy deals with a very interesting subject: Juan Pujol Garcia, the greatest double agent of World War II.  The movie starts with an introduction from Eisenhower during the war, explaining how “teamwork wins wars.”  We then cut to Nigel West, a historian and former Conservative MP, who explains the role that deception has in winning wars, with references to the D-Day Invasion at Normandy.  Through a combination of clips from old spy movies, propaganda films, and WWII footage, and interviews with several people (including a former spy), the rest of the film uncovers details about this most interesting of men.

The spy known as Garbo was born Juan Pujol Garcia on February 14, 1912 (Valentine’s Day), in Spain.  To understand why a man who lived in a neutral country during WWII would want to become a double agent, one must look, as the movie does, at the world in which he grew up in.  The rise of Fascism in Italy.  The Japanese invasion of Manchuria.  The rise of the Nazis in Germany.  Most of all, however, the events surrounding the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.

Originally, Juan Pujol went into hiding rather than fight for the Nationalists or the Fascists in Spain.  Eventually, though, he ended up fighting for the Nationalists, telling them that he knew Morse code.  He did not, and so they had him lay down wire for their communications, which meant that he often went behind enemy lines.  One night, he used this opportunity to escape, but instead of defecting to the Fascists, he went the wrong way, telling the Nationalists that he was defecting from them!  They fired upon him, but he miraculously wasn’t hit, and he went into hiding.  Even more amazingly, he was not discovered the next morning, either.  He waited until the Nationalists had left, then headed in the correct direction and went over to the Fascists.

I should point out that he did this out of necessity.  He hated the Fascists, which is why when WWII broke out, he went to the British Embassy to offer his services as a spy.  They kicked him out.  Undaunted, he went to the German Embassy.  They were more willing to listen.

He was supposed to go to London and gather intelligence for the Germans.  Instead, he stayed in Lisbon and made up all of his correspondences.  In fact, he made up all of his sources, too.  To the Germans, he was known as Arabel.

The British, who rejected his help four times before accepting it, only did so after, on one occasion, Juan Pujol convinced the Germans that a large British force was leaving Liverpool to relieve the Siege of Malta.  Of course, there was no such force, but the Germans sent out a fleet to intercept it.  At the time, Cyril Miller was the head of the British Intelligence Agency.  The agent who interviewed Juan Pujol, to discover what his motives were, was an agent named Rousseau.  The British were the ones who named him Garbo, for “they believed him to be the best actor of the war” (I believe Nigel West said that quote).  They also brought him to London for real.

Originally, Garbo’s case officer was Miller, but then Thomas Harris took over.  Harris spoke fluent Spanish, and he and Garbo created more fake agents, which eventually numbered 22 in all (even killing off one that would know about the planned invasion of Africa before the invasion would take place, and recruiting his wife–who also didn’t exist–in his place).  They also tricked the Germans into supplying Garbo with enough funds to pay his network of spies.  Called Operation Dream, the funds from the Nazis ending up funding most of the British Intelligence Service operations in the last few years of the war, to the tune of 20,000 pounds.

Garbo made two significant contributions in WWII.  First, he helped crack the Enigma code, as his case officer would pick up the German relay of Garbo’s intelligence each day and compare it to the original document in order to create a template for other intercepted communications for a code that changed every day.  His second, and possibly even greater, contribution was in convincing the Germans that the invasion at Normandy was a feint, and that the real invasion, led by General Patton, would land at the Pas de Calais.  As for the Normandy invasion, Eisenhower approved the information on the attack to be sent out three hours before the invasion would take place, figuring that the Nazis wouldn’t have time to respond.  By sheer luck, no one was in the booth that day, listening for messages, so the Germans got the message after the invasion had ended.

Even more significant,  he convinced the Germans, even months afterward, that the main invasion force was still coming (and since the Allies had built an entire fake army out of plywood in England, which could be easily seen from the air, the Germans had no reason to doubt him).  This allowed the Western Front to be secured, since most of the Germans were still at the Pas de Calais (and Rommel, on the day of the invasion, was attending a celebration in Germany).  Eventually, however, he told them that the feint had been so successful, the Allies had decided to cancel the main invasion, and the Germans believed him.  In fact, he is the only person ever to be awarded medals by both the Axis and Allied sides of WWII.

So why was he so convincing?  Two things: he had a vivid and active imagination, and he was passionate.  His writing style convinced people that he was telling the truth, so much so that after the Germans surrendered, he received money from them from his Nazi case coordinator back in Spain for all of the “great intelligence” he gave them.

But then, apparently, he died in Angola in 1949 from malaria, though some sources say it was from a snake bite.  Or did he?

Editing is the second most important part of a documentary, and here, each clip was seemlessly interwoven into the entire fabric, along with the interviews and the music.  I would have liked the names of each of the interviewees to have been shown on screen besides each subject (instead of having them introduce themselves halfway through the movie), but that is a small caveat.

The most powerful scenes for me, however, come near the end of the film.  One concerns the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landing.  The other concerns a military graveyard, with one of those looks on camera that say what so many words cannot about the tragedy and futility of war.

And what would’ve happened had D-Day failed, or had the Western Front collapsed in the weeks following D-Day?  Certainly, the war would have gone on for another year and thousands more would have died.  As it says in the credits, Juan Pujol saved thousands of lives “on both sides,” “without firing a shot.”

So now we come back to the reason why Juan Pujol became a double agent.  It was his belief that humanity could not stand for the authoritative governments of Germany and Italy.  And so, armed with only his passion, his imagination, and his courage, he helped to put an end to them.

5 out of 5.

Additional information derived from the Juan Pujol Garcia Wikipedia entry (which might ruin some surprises to be found in the film), and, as always, from IMDB.

A related link about the Bletchley Park Archive (kudos to @theangrymick for bringing this to my attention via Twitter)