At the beginning of WWII, Spaniard Juan Pujol Garcia approached the highly secretive and powerful British intelligence agency MI5 and told them he would like to be a spy. Garcia had no training, background, or affiliation to claim, only a desire to stop fascism from spreading across Europe. Of course, the British rejected him outright, concerned he was a double agent or a hack looking to get paid. This happened not just once, but four times.
According to Edmon Roch’s compulsively interesting documentary Garbo: The Spy, Garcia finally convinced the British he was legit after revealing the creation of a network of false identities throughout the continent, personas that the Germans believed were real operatives. It seems the Brits were at least half right in their original assertion. Considering the epic scope of this “strategic deception,” Garcia was given the codename of “Garbo” because, as historian Nigel West puts it, “he was the best actor in the world.”
Using a whirlwind of archival footage, maps, and split screens, Roch conveys Garcia’s reign as Europe’s premiere spy in a constantly fluid fashion, aesthetically mimicking the his crafty and cagey nature. Since the film is essentially a celebration of Garcia’s hidden and virtually unknown impact on the war, the narrative is fittingly constructed like something out of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Initially, West explains the context of Garcia’s initial outrage against fascism during the 1930s Spanish Civil War, and Roch provides plenty of horrific footage to back these assertions up. Pledging loyalty to both the Francoists and Spanish loyalists, Garcia cuts his teeth as a double agent throughout the three-year struggle, nearly getting killed on multiple occasions. Garcia’s focus would eventually turn to WWII, and Roch reveals how seamlessly he ingratiates himself into the good graces of the Nazis, who provided misinformation regarding troop convoys and other essential intelligence. The effortless way Roch conveys these historical timelines makes one thankful Garcia didn’t have the reverse ideological intentions.
The film’s thrilling climax details Garcia’s masterpiece of intrigue, aptly titled “Operation Fortitude,” when the spy wired a stream of blatant misinformation to the Germans during the lead up to the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. In a bit of brilliant double-crossing, Garcia convinced the Third Reich that Colonel Patton was going to invade through Calais on the west coast of France, and the Normandy campaign was merely a diversionary tactic. This ruse proved incredibly successful during the assault, but even more so after the fact as Garcia further stalled a German counter-attack with more debilitating untruths. With this in mind, Roch structures Garbo: The Spy to basically affirm that Garcia was one of the key factors in crushing Nazism.
Roch goes to on to explore Garcia’s post-war life, which included him faking his own death in Angola before moving to South America, where he operated a cinema and lived for nearly four more decades. Thanks in large part to the investigative work of West, a stoic professor who provides the bulk of the film’s interview footage, Garcia was able to return to Normandy in 1984 and receive an esteemed medal from the British government. Footage of the now aged Garcia walking the beaches of Southern France and the expansive cemetery for the fallen soldiers has a special resonance considering the context.
For whatever reason, Roch juxtaposes his nicely constructed mosaic of archival footage and graphics with one heightened musical track after another. The wide range of genres on display (rock, classical, alternative) proves Garbo: The Spy to be a bit schizophrenic, unsure of how to compute the massive amounts of information at hand. Ultimately, this odd and divergent musical soundtrack mirrors Garcia’s own evasiveness, refusing to be defined by any one identity no matter the cost.