By Julia Knobloch
For quite a while now, juggling and merging several layers of reality and fiction has been established as a standard in film narrative. Like almost everywhere around us, the boundaries between what is true and false, real and surreal, interpretation and fact are often blurred. Fiction is being told as if it were reality, and reality is often presented as fiction.
Yet there is always room for experiment. In this context, Edmon Roch’s feature film documentary Garbo – The Spy can be regarded as, if not an entirely new, nevertheless an original and fresh attempt at pushing those boundaries even further. To a great extent, Roch relies on clips from spy films and WWII movies (Mata Hari, The Invisible Agent, Our Man in Havana, The Longest Day, and Patton, to name just a few) to tell the historically-confirmed story of a Spanish double agent, Juan Pujol Garcia, who served both the Nazis and the British.
It is a refreshing stylistic approach in that the clips illustrate what usually is very difficult for historical documentaries to show, especially if they don’t use reenactment: the actual action—the what “really” happened—what nobody saw besides the people involved.
By choosing the archived movie scenes, Roch and his team fill in the blanks. This is not so different from reenactment, in the sense that any selection of footage or any scripted re-creation is always an interpretation of the historic facts, a placeholder for what has been lost in history’s maze of “what ifs.”
There are, of course, facts: Pujol—code named Alaric by the Germans and Garbo by the Brits—accepted both the Nazis’ Iron Cross and England’s OBE. After the war, he was reported to have passed away in Africa, a false reality his Spanish family had to accept while Pujol started a new life and a new family in Venezuela. Asked about the underlying motives for his maneuvers as a double agent, he emphasized that he wanted to fight the injustices of his time with the means at his disposal. One can interpret this as Pujol describing himself as a well-intentioned humanist, albeit a cunning one who had to make moral compromises.
According to the film, Pujol, who had defected from the Republican to the Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War, played a major, if not decisive, role in the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, when he convinced the Germans that the imminent landfall of Patton and his troops was slated to occur at Pas-de-Calais, and not, as it eventually did, on the Cherbourg peninsula.
It is a well-known fact that the Nazis were easily to be duped in their war-fueled intoxication. But the successful misleading of the usurpers in black leather boots was a huge, manifold and multi-faceted orchestration, which arguably did not depend on one person alone. Does it diminish Pujol’s undoubtedly important role in the Operation Fortitude (as the Allies codenamed their counterintelligence campaign) if one wonders whether selling him, as the film does, as the lone ranger who saved the Allied Invasion – or the world, as the title suggests – is a stretch?
Nevertheless, Garbo –The Spy is an entertaining, idiosyncratic and provocative film. It clearly involved a lot of time spent in archives and doing in-depth interviews. Tracking down people who by trade aim to remain invisible requires passion and persistence. Seasoned and visionary professionals, Roch and his team researched the facts, talked with trustworthy experts, chose from a nicely-filled pool of footage, and then twined all the layers together, according to their own personal interpretation of one moment in history.