Review: Garbo: The Spy


One of the great strange stories I’ve heard about World War II — and there are many — is that there was a plot by the Allies to put estrogen into Hitler’s vegetable garden. The hope was that by giving Hitler enough doses of the female hormone, his voice would change in pitch, making his speeches less powerful. His mustache would eventually fall off as well, and the hairless Führer would lose influence among the German people and become easier to topple.

The plan never went through (would it even be possible for spies to regularly access Hitler’s food?) yet it helps illustrate the lengths the Allied forces were willing to go in order to win the war. Though ground power, tactical and technological know-how, and luck helped ensure victory, you can also attribute the success in the European theater to the imagination of a double agent known as Garbo.

Garbo: The Spy
Director: Edmon Roch
Rating: NR
Release Date: 11/18/2011

The old cliché is that the truth is stranger than fiction, that sometimes facts are so bizarre that we wouldn’t believe them unless we knew that they were real. But fiction was Garbo’s MO from the get go, and he was able to fool the Nazis into believing false information for years. Most importantly, his work helped make the D-Day invasion successful. Without him, history might have turned out differently.

Born Joan Pujol Garcia in Barcelona, Garbo’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War gave him a sense of duty to fight against the horrors of fascism. He offered to be a spy for the British at the beginning of World War II but was rebuffed. Who would hire someone who walks into the British embassy in Spain offering his services out of the blue? And so he immediately went to the German embassy and enrolled as an informant. Thus began his life of deception.

Early in Edmon Roch’s film, it’s revealed that while Garbo was supposedly feeding the Nazis information from England, he’d never actually been there. He was instead operating outside of Lisbon, one of the hotbeds of spy activity during the war, and was imagining England incorrectly — a place where dockworkers drink fine wine instead of beer, and where summers are impossibly hot, downright tropical. Nevertheless, the Nazis believed every word of his false intelligence.

In Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Decay of Lying” there’s a line that goes, “The whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.” The same was true of England for both Garbo and the Nazis.

The name Garbo — after Greta Garbo — was given to him by British intelligence when he was finally hired. The reason for the name: the British considered him the greatest actor in the world. To deceive the Nazis for so long and through wires and letters, Garbo could have also been considered one of the greatest writers in the world. Not only were his notes to the Nazis so believable, he also created a network of 22 fake sub-agents from all walks of life and from all over the globe. Each of these 22 characters helped feed the Nazis the lies that would help win the war.

In Roch’s exploration of the double agent, he intercuts interviews with archival footage and clips from movies about spies and World War II. Between the opinions of actual intelligence experts, you’ll get Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana talking about the power of fabrication, the enticing Greta Garbo dancing as the spy Mata Hari, or Geroge C. Scott in Patton mulling over the idea of a fake invasion. There’s also a clip from The Stanger, in which Orson Welles plays a Nazi-in-hiding. (Welles himself was a master of deception and misdirection, what with the War of the Worlds radio broadcast and, later, his whimsical film essay F for Fake.)

Apart from the name-that-movie fun for the film buffs, Roch uses his clips to play with levels of truth. Fact gets nested within fiction and vice versa in the much the same way that Garbo did with his intelligence. For all the false information that Garbo provided, for example, he would also provide a morsel of true information, though that information would always be a little too late for the Nazis to do anything about it. Roch does this for flavor, though, and generally doesn’t let the fiction overrun the facts. Then again, he doesn’t seem to mind this commingling either.

Roch doesn’t arrive at an outright thesis from his blending of factual history and fictional takes on history, but I think there’s a larger point that can be teased out of this. In exploring actual events factually or fictionally, the truth or some form of truth can be found in the fiction of movies and well as the plot of the estrogen garden. Truth is not just stranger than fiction but an entity distinct from mere fact.

There’s a fascinating notion in the film about the nature and power of lying. Psychiatrist Stan Vranckx, one of the interviewees, mentions that the whole of the Nazi ideology is built on lies. There’s the lie of Aryan superiority and the lie of Jewish inferiority, for example, and there is the Nazi reverence for Germanic myths and legends. (It may explain the fascination with the ties between the occult and Nazism in fiction and non-fiction.) It’s through those lies that the ideology drew and maintained its power. Perhaps this willingness to lie and to accept lies explains why Nazi intelligence was so trusting of Garbo.

And so lies can topple lies. But if we take a step back, what we’re looking at is the role of stories in shaping the world, and how stories have both their malevolent uses (fascism) and good uses (art). We invent stories around stories or from other stories, sometimes simply for the fun of it, sometimes to make them more convincing, or sometimes to convince ourselves that the stories are real.

For instance, another one of those great strange stories about World War II is Operation Mincemeat, in which false documents were planted on a washed-up corpse in order to throw the Nazis off in the Mediterranean. The idea came from Ian Fleming, the man who would eventually create James Bond; Fleming claimed to have gotten the idea from a detective novel he’d read. It worked. Stories nested in stories; the truth is stranger than fiction.

Maybe it’s strangeness that’s part of the allure of a well-made documentary. For me, that quality helps elicit a sense of wonder at the unpredictability of authentic human experience. We’re moved not just because we’re receiving a mere report of history or admiring a portrait of a personality — we’re moved because we understand that the world is complicated and odder than we can possibly comprehend.

A sense of strangeness continues in Garbo: The Spy as we learn about his ultimate fate. He recedes from the war, and then it gets stranger. But it’s fitting, I think, that a life like his should continue along a peculiar trajectory. If it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Prior to the movie as the audience was settling in, a man behind asked the group rhetorically, apropos of nothing, “Ain’t life great?” No one responded, though I just sort of smiled softly. Had he asked this after Garbo: The Spy was over, I would have answered him, “Yes, but strange too, and sometimes quite beautiful because of it.”

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Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.