First Run Features // 2009 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 10th, 2012
The astonishing story of World War II's greatest spy!
History tells us that spies as we know it got their start with Sir Francis Walsingham (played memorably by Geoffrey Rush in Elizabeth and The Golden Age) under the reign of Elizabeth I of England. Although it was a deadly serious business at the time and continued to be of utmost importance to government for the next several hundred years, there was always a bit of the amateur in spycraft -- amateur in its original sense as someone who does something for love. Spying didn't really blossom as a profession until World War II and its aftermath in the Cold War. For proof, we need look no further than the events documented in Garbo: The Spy. An impressive tale of double-dealing for some of the biggest stakes imaginable, Garbo is an interesting documentary that will appeal to fans of history and tales of spies.
Garbo: The Spy documents the curious case of Juan Pajol Garcia, a Spanish national who acted as a double agent for the Allies during WWII. Though he was ultimately working for the Allies, he had the absolute trust of both Allied and German forces, earning him the nickname Garbo for his acting abilities. This allowed him to feed secrets to the Allies and disinformation to the Germans, helping to turn the tide of World War II. He operated by developing a fictitious network of spies that supposedly fed him information, information he then fed to the Nazis. His most famous exploit involved planting disinformation about the location of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, one of the more crucial moments in the war.
Garbo: The Spy confronts an interesting problem: how exactly do you document the secret? By their very nature, the actions undertaken by Pajol had the highest level of secrecy, and records of his exploits could have been dangerous to either side during the war. Though many would consider his actions heroic, it did require betraying his German controllers. Understandably, Pajol retired to obscurity, eventually running a cinema in South America.
How then does filmmaker Edmon Roch attack the problem of portraying a huge part of world history without access to a subject, historical documents, or relevant archival footage? Brilliantly, I would say. His first tactic is to enlist the aid of historian/novelist Nigel West. West is used to fill in a lot of the larger details about what was going on in the war when Pajol was active. Where he can't go, Roch uses interviews with those who knew Pajol (along with some footage of Pajol himself from later in his life).
However, this is not a typical talking heads-style documentary piece. No, Roch engages with fictional elements to craft what can only be termed a "documentary thriller." In addition to the interviews, Roch weaves animated maps and other digital trickery to give us a sense of how Pajol (and his network of totally made-up spies) worked with the Germans (and the Allies) to work his magic.
More significantly for me, though, is that Roch also weaves footage from contemporary spy movies into his documentary. Where footage of Pajol's exploits does not exist, we get shots from Mata Hari and other spy films that tell similar stories. On one level, this move creates tension as we connect Pajol's exploits to those of the silver screen. On another level, the films evoke the atmosphere surrounding the war in a way that interviews can't capture. Finally, their inclusion makes a point about the way that stories and storytelling function in spying that seems rather poignant in light of Pajol's eventual fate as a theater owner.
Garbo: The Spy comes to DVD in a solid package. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is as good as the source material it's working with. The contemporary interview footage looks perfect, with bright colors and no artefacting. Some of the older spy films look a bit rough, with damaged prints and occasional fuzziness. However, even the problems with the older material only add to the nostalgic feeling they give the film. The stereo audio is similarly fine. The contemporary interviewees speak in a variety of languages (and the non-English speakers are subtitled). They sound clean and clear, while the older film clips sound as good as can be expected from the source material.
The film's main extra is an extended (30 minute) interview with Nigel West that covers a bit more material than made it into the film. We also get a WWII-era training film, which is an interesting bit of history on "sonic deception." Finally, we get the film's original trailer and a bio of the director.
Garbo: The Spy is both fascinating history and a decent exercise in suspense. It's highly recommended for history buffs, WWII fanatics, and those who like a good spy story. The disc's presentation and extras make it great for either purchase or rental.
Not guilty. The court would also look kindly on a fictional adaptation of Pajol's exploits in the future.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film