“Garbo: The Man Who Saved the World” is a compelling, gracefully told account of an extraordinary Spanish double agent during WWII who helped change the course of history. Helmer Edmon Roch could easily have sat back and let this ripping yarn tell itself. Instead, he creates a dazzling mixture of feature film and archival footage, interviews and music, which beautifully underscores the docu’s theme of the shifting border between truth and falsehood. Offshore prospects look unusually sturdy for an item that’s already garnered several fest awards. Theatrically, it’s been Spain’s hottest docu in years.
The former manager of a chicken farm, Juan Pujol was in hiding during much of the Spanish Civil War, which gave the Catalan a distaste for fascism. In 1940, he offered his services to the British as a spy against the Nazis but was rejected. Instead, he set himself up as a German agent, operating out of Lisbon but pretending to the Nazis that he was based in London.
On his fifth try, the Brits accepted him. Under the codename “Arabel,” Pujol wrote thousands of pages of information (some true, some false) which he sent to the Nazis. He invented a team of 27 agents and subagents, all with detailed backstories but none of whom actually existed. The passion and sincerity of his letters were enough to persuade the Germans that he was for real.
The peak of his career came in 1944, when he succeeded in diverting German defense forces to Calais while the Allied landings were taking place in Normandy, thus averting considerable bloodshed. After this, Garbo retired by faking his own death. The pic claims he’s the only man to have been awarded both an MBE and the Iron Cross.
Historian Nigel West tells how, 30-odd years later, he tracked down Garbo — so called by his Brit employers because he was the “best actor in the world.”
Though much of the film is talking heads, it’s a real roller-coaster ride thanks to the sheer number of events recounted. There’s no voiceover, but the articulateness of West and Mark Seaman carries the viewer easily through the more complex parts of the story.
Helmer Roch’s approach to his subject is a combination of wonder, respect and amusement. No space is given to the darker psychological forces that must have been at work inside Garbo, and perhaps too little to his wife, Araceli, who was crucial to the entire setup.
Fittingly for a spy, we never hear Garbo himself speak, and Roch shows only a single image of a nondescript nerd in glasses until the later sequences of him as an elderly man.
Creative use is made of clips from “Mata Hari,” “Mr. Moto’s Last Warning,” “Our Man in Havana” and other spy movies. Even the 1943 death of Leslie Howard has a small, unexpected role to play.
Atmospheric music by the likes of Brian Eno and Sparklehorse is used to often haunting effect.