Throughout World War II, the Nazis received intelligence from a network of 27 secret agents dubbed “Arabel,” led by a British gentleman they called “Alaric.” But in fact, the man wasn’t British; he was a Spaniard named Juan Pujol Garcia. And he didn’t have 26 spies working for him, either; it was always only Garcia, drawing multiple paychecks from the bad guys while feeding them false or strategically delayed information. Garcia originally camped out in a library in a Spanish fishing village, perusing foreign newspapers for tidbits he could use to convince the Germans that he knew what he was talking about. Once he had an in with the Axis, he made himself available to the Allies, working with the British and Americans to pass along the enemy’s codes and to mislead the Nazis in return. In one incident that may have changed the course of the war—and thus the world—Alaric gave up the location of the Allied invasion of Europe. The wrong location.
Edmon Roch’s documentary Garbo: The Spy tells Garcia’s remarkable story in an unusual way. Roch has the standard stable of talking heads—mostly historians, supplemented by an ex-spy and a psychiatrist—recounting the broad strokes of Garcia’s biography while filling in the nuts and bolts of how spies communicate, how they get paid, and how they think. But since there’s little footage of Garcia to illustrate the story, Roch relies on archival military films and, in his boldest stroke, clips from old Hollywood war movies. Frankly, the more conventional approach works better. Seeing real film of D-Day, and real shots of the dummy jeeps and planes that the Americans built to deceive the Nazis, captures the atmosphere of WWII far better than the distracting scenes from Patton and Our Man In Havana.
The movie clips do serve a purpose, though. The British code-named Garcia “Garbo” because he was such an incredible actor, and his life, ultimately, had a “truth is stranger than fiction” quality. After the war, he faked his own death and disappeared, little-remembered by history until a dogged writer tracked him down. Garbo: The Spy can only suggest who Garcia really was, and why he took it upon himself to fell a tyrant. But even without the fine psychological shading, Garcia’s story is a doozy.