Back in 1980 or so, not long after I quit the Socialist Workers Party and was harboring foolish ideas about writing publishable novels, I took a writer’s workshop at NYU from a hack spy novelist named Roy Doliner who had only one interesting thing to say, namely that there were only a handful of plots in all of literature and virtually everything written—including screenplays–since Homer recycles these plots. Like “Huckleberry Finn” and “On the Road” for example.
So I wasn’t expecting any new ground to be broken when I requested a screener for “King of Devil’s Island”, a Norwegian prison revolt movie directed by Marius Holst that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. While I had modest expectations to see how this hoary genre going back to the 1930 “Big House” would translate into Norwegian, I was richly rewarded by a great story and acting that makes this easily one of my top ten picks of the year.
Based on an actual youth prison rebellion on Bastøy Island in the early 1900s (now an adult prison with the reputation of a country club holding the fascist mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik), the film includes the inevitable conflict between a newly arrived charismatic maverick in the vein of Cool Hand Luke and a sadistic warden (think Norwegian for “what we have here is a failure to communicate”) and staff.
That maverick is a harpooner named Erling (Benjamin Helstad) who is reputed to have killed someone. The film opens with his voice-over as we see a massive whale being pursued by his ship in a flashback. Despite the three harpoons lodged in the beast’s back, he fights on until death. Despite being a whale killer, he admires the animal’s fighting spirit and foretells through his words his own stubborn defiance of the prison’s authorities.
Upon arrival, Erling is ordered by the warden, the grim-looking Bestyreren (acclaimed Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård), to strip naked and to surrender all of his personal belongings in exchange for the blue uniform all inmates are forced to wear. To top off his dehumanization, Erling is assigned a number—C-19. As long as he is on the island, that is his name.
Erling is assigned to a dormitory under the control of Olav (Kristoffer Joner), a sadistic pedophile who senses immediately that Erling will refuse to be pushed around. In the press notes, director Holst describes the story as “about the evil that grows in institutions sealed off from the rest of the world, and how powerful regimes may spiral out of control.”
Sounds a bit like Penn State, doesn’t it, all the more so in a confrontation between Bestyreren and Olav over the suicide of a young prisoner he had been raping on weekly basis for years? When the warden tells him that he can go to prison for his deeds, Olav insinuates that the authorities would not be very happy about funds for the welfare of the boys being siphoned into the warden’s mansion. Sounds like a conversation that Paterno and Sandusky might have had, no?
Director Holst imbues the film with a brooding intensity drawn to a large part from the dimly lit interiors of the boy’s dormitory to the glacial landscape of the island (one near Estonia in actuality). The last fifteen minutes or so is devoted to the prison revolt and its cruel suppression. It is not as if you have never seen such a story before, but director Holst makes you feel like you are seeing it for the first time, a tribute to his talent.
“Garbo: the Spy” is a documentary opening today at the Quad Cinema about a Spanish double agent working for the Nazis during WWII while secretly taking his orders from Great Britain. Born in 1912, Joan Pujol Garcia came from a middle-class family in Barcelona and led an unremarkable existence until the Spanish Civil War came along to disturb his peace.
Showing not the slightest interest in politics to this point, he enlisted with the Republican side but only in order to get closer to the fascist army where he planned to switch sides. When he was on the front lines, he made his bid in the middle of the night but inadvertently had walked in a circle until when approaching the Republican troops he announced that he had come to join General Franco. He barely managed to escape with his life.
His next stop was Lisbon where he dreamed up the idea of becoming a double-agent. He first approached the Nazis who were only happy to draft him as “Arabel”. Immediately afterwards he went to the British who were to refer to him as code name Garbo because they found him to be such a good actor.
My reaction at this point of this intriguing documentary was to wonder if he was any different from an actual actor who was playing roles for money. One week you can be Macbeth, the next week Henry the Fifth. Indeed, most CIA or FBI agents who end up working for the Reds were doing it for the money while the British elite who worked for them had ideology that seemed to be totally lacking in Garcia’s case. According to the film’s experts (most of it consists of these talking heads and stock footage from the 1930s and 40s), he worked for the British because he was opposed to “extremism”.
My guess is that the director Edmon Roch found this about as plausible as I did since the film is larded with scenes from spy movies of the past played pretty much for comedy. Of particular interest was the inclusion of scenes from “Our Man in Havana”, the 1959 film based on a Graham Greene novel that starred Alec Guiness as Jim Wormold, a character inspired by Garbo as the wiki indicates:
Greene joined MI6 in August 1941. In London, Greene had been appointed to the subsection dealing with counter-espionage in the Iberian peninsula, where he had learned about German agents in Portugal sending the Germans fictitious reports which garnered them expenses and bonuses to add to their basic salary. One of these agents was “Garbo”, a Spanish double agent in Lisbon, who gave his German handlers disinformation, by pretending to control a ring of agents all over England. In fact he invented armed forces movements and operations from maps, guides and standard military references. Garbo was the main inspiration for Wormold, the protagonist of Our Man In Havana.
The real life Garbo had much more of an impact on world history than Greene’s anti-hero. So skilled he was at deception, he convinced the Nazis that the D-Day landing would occur at Calais rather than Normandy.
Showing little interest in garnering accolades after his derring-do, Garcia feigned his own death and moved to Venezuela where he took a job in the oil industry. “Garbo: the Spy” is a droll film that does not take itself too seriously and makes for a pleasant 90 minutes even if you will walk out of the theater having the slightest clue what made this character tick.