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Reviewed by:
  • Garbo: The Spy
  • David A. Messenger
Garbo: The Spy (2009). Directed by Edmon Roch. Distributed by First Run Features. 93 minutes.

Rarely can one write their own script in a thriller, but this seems to be exactly what Juan Pujol García did during the Second World War. In 1940, the Spaniard volunteered to work for British intelligence in Madrid and was turned down. So, he went to the German embassy and instead became a spy for the Nazi regime. Given the code name Arabal, he claimed that his business was taking him to London where he could better serve Germany. In actual fact, he and his wife settled in a village outside of Lisbon, Portugal for eleven months, where he visited the library, read the newspapers, and made up stories about British convoys and other relevant material to give to German military intelligence, the Abwehr, in Lisbon and Madrid. Soon, the British became aware of his actions and recruited him, leading to his service as the most effective double agent in their extensive ‘Double Cross’ system. They then actually did bring him to London, gave him the code-name ‘Garbo,’ and further developed his work of deception. From London, he continued to feed his Abwehr controllers all sorts of misinformation, most famously about the D-Day invasion of France, which Pujol repeatedly suggested would take place at Pas de Calais and not on the beaches of Normandy.

Edmon Roch’s 2009 documentary, the winner of numerous awards in Spain and throughout Europe, tells this fascinating story in a fast-paced and [End Page 125] entertaining manner. Without extensive footage of Pujol himself, who died in 1988, or of espionage activity generally, Roch mixes discussion by five experts on the Garbo case with footage from a series of World War II-era spy and military films such as Mata Hari, Our Man in Havana, and Patton. This certainly contributes to the pace of the film and helps fill in gaps with a subject that does not permit the director use of raw footage. There are certainly times, however, where this mix could be edited more effectively. The fictional footage is sometimes overdone, and the expert commentators are not identified until halfway through, as if they were being revealed themselves as agents in a secret game.

Nonetheless, the story of Garbo had enough excitement and intrigue on its own. Historians Nigel West and Mark Seaman, both of whom have written about the case, journalist Xavier Vinader, who interviewed Pujol, and Aline Griffith, the Countess of Romanones, who spied for the United States in Madrid during the war, all provide fascinating details from their own experience and research. This is especially important in placing Garbo’s D-Day deception in its proper place as one aspect of an extensive Allied subterfuge that included sending General George Patton to the southeast of England to command a non-existent army. Garbo’s dispatches to his German contacts, outlining Patton’s moves and other activities in England, not only increased in the weeks before the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, but continued afterwards, as Garbo continued to argue in the days following the landings that Normandy was only an initial invasion to be followed by the larger one at Pas de Calais. German troops, as a result, did not move to counter-attack the Allied forces in Normandy, a decision that Seaman states was essential to allowing the Allied forces needed in western Europe for the rest of the war to secure their position.

What is most fascinating is the story of Pujol himself. While the British carried out extensive deception operations through many of their intelligence services, Pujol developed his, which included a network of some twenty-two imaginary agents throughout England, completely on his own before joining the British in London. His decision to do so seems to defy all logic. His actions after the war were equally remarkable. He returned briefly to Madrid, met his German handler – the Abwehr’s Madrid chief, Karl-Erich Kuhlenthal – and received a considerable payment in cash, as well as the Iron Cross, for his work. He then abandoned his...


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