Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Edmon Roch's award-winning GARBO: THE SPY -- a WWII story that few of us knew

I've always thought that being a spy -- for anyone with humanist tendencies, at least -- must be an awful drag. I mean, you're betraying literally everyone you work with and get to know. On one side, anyway. For a certain Spaniard named Juan Pujol García, a double agent during WWII who spied for both Germany and Britain (but whose allegiance lay with the Allies rather than the Axis forces), this must have come a little easier than for most. (Señor Pujol, early in his career during the Spanish Civil War, once tried to desert the Republicans to join with Franco's forces, but his sense of direction proven so faulty that he flubbed it.)

In the new film GARBO: THE SPY -- which won Best European Documentary Film at the Seville European Film fest, as well as a Goya Award for Best doc -- filmmaker Edmon Roch, shown at left, weaves together the story of Pujol's spying into a marvelous piece of entertainment, alternately surprising and often hilarious (in an after-the-fact way: What Pujol did was evidently paramount to the allies' winning of the war). Via archival film, into which has been spliced footage from a number of WWII narrative films from Hollywood and Britain, together with interviews with intelligence specialists, former spies, journalists and Pujol and his families (yes, that's plural: the man was double in so many ways), Roch gives us a crisp and generally delightful look at the events, if not the fellow in the middle of them.

But then spies must tend to be private -- if they plan to stay alive. (The photo above shows Pujol as Alaric, the code name given him by the Germans; it was the British who dubbed him Garbo, for his amazing acting ability.) An entire other film could probably be made by interviewing at length the fellow's two sets of  families. But that would be more of interest to psychologists than to general audiences, I suspect. For now, let's be grateful that Roch and his helpers explored enough to come up with a story as crackerjack as this one, and then told it so well. Among the film clips shown, much attention is paid to Our Man in Havana, with Alec Guinness in the spy role created by author Graham Greene, who evidently took his inspiration from the exploits of Pujol (shown below, right, as a young man during the Spanish Civil War).

The layout/organization of the film leaves a bit to be desired. We hear from almost our entire cross-section of interviewees for more than half an hour before Roch decides to identify them -- almost as an afterthought. And coming out of the movie, you are likely to hold the Germans in less regard than you did going in. Leaving aside for the moment the barbarity and horror of the Nazi actions and their cause itself, how could the German top brass have been stupid enough to believe this Pujol? It almost (but not quite) defies credibility -- making these guys seems more like Hogan's Heroes than the Germans of Stalag 17.

It's tempting, covering a movie like this one, to start retelling anecdotes -- so many and so amazing are they. So I'll just limit myself to noting that, if you are not laughing aloud when you lean how British postwar/cold-war intelligence was originally funded, I shall be very surprised. Garbo: The Spy is a movie which -- if you have any interest in the spy game, WWII or history in general -- demands to be seen. Should you pass it up in theaters, at least stick it in your Netflix queue or watch for it on cable or TV, down the line. It's another must-see documentary in a year that's been increasingly full of them.

The movie, from the more-and-more theatrically ubiquitous First Run Features, opens this Friday, November 18, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and next Friday, November 25, in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall. Over December and January it will be playing elsewhere across the country.  Click here to see all currently scheduled theaters and playdates.

All photos are from the film itself, except that of
Señor Roch, which comes courtesy of IndieWire.com.

No comments: