“Master of the Universe” (“Der Banker”)
Facing Ethical Dilemmas
Marc Bauder’s new documentary about investment bankers takes us into the world of ethical dilemmas. It is investment bankers that are the real rulers of our universe and not politicians, armies or even countries. From Germany, one of the world’s economic powerhouses, Ranier Voss, a top banker gives us quite a disturbing insider’s account of his emotions, motivations and predictions. What he reveals is a parallel universe of extreme income and merciless pressure.
Our German banker entered the business at the same time as the advent of modern computer systems and he shares reminisces of his working years in some of the world-leading banking corporations. His narration gives us an outline of the typical paradigm of the professional and personal life of a bank’s employee, along with the ethical dilemmas they often faced. We also get his views on the dynamics in financial markets and recession. What we really see, in fact, is a system that disconnects bankers from the outside world, unable to reflect about their work.
The film is a diagnosis of a system that is hopelessly sick and not being treated and we see inside the bubble that is behind the financial bubble and there seems to be no end on the horizon. This documentary quietly debunks the conservative notion that our largest corporations should be allowed to fight it out. For whatever reason, we find it comforting to think that investment bankers imperil our economic infrastructure and are seen as glamorous super-villains. Even though there are some truths; especially to the understanding that our government steadfastly refuses to effectively acknowledge a series of criminal conspiracies that will certainly foster greater financial catastrophes than the economic downturn of 2008, we still must look at cause and effect. That is what this film does.
We see that regulation is revealed to be unambiguously necessary, if just to allow these bankers to see what is really going on and we learn that they are not much more than parts of an ever-undefined machine. While this film is about Germany, it could be about America as the issues are essentially the same. Voss is a former trader who tells us stories that largely match up to cautionary tales that we’ve heard about those that make up and manufacture “hot” stocks out of almost nothing and then watch as s their machinations escalate into a tidal wave of unfounded debt and investment that’s capable of reducing countries to their knees.
Voss grew up in a working-class family where he dreamt of self-actualizing affluence, and got into the German banking culture in the early 1990s. This was when it was being groomed by American finance. He and his colleagues looked upon the Americans as if they were gods who showed them the way.
Director Marc Bauder here is concerned with the micro, allowing the macro to assert itself gradually. Voss represents every trader of any continent, who far overshot his means and the bank that he left obviously encapsulates all of economically uncertain Europe. We see the bank in cold colors that often emphasizes how its exterior resembles a beehive, a visual metaphor that affirms Voss’s early on with his descriptions of the insane, personality-annihilating level of worker-bee devotion that is expected.
Voss’s most damning pronouncement is that one has be a simpleton to believe that the stock market’s traders are capable of learning from their mistakes, which are barely understood or recognized as mistakes to begin with in a culture that’s dominated by risk addiction.
Voss says that Europe’s economic desolation is a foregone conclusion, and it will fold when France inevitably topples over. Though Voss’s ruminations come from his wanting legal evasion as well as for self-glory, it is difficult to refute his hopelessness. He stresses that, “Only simpletons believe the market is capable of learning.”
This statement is not exactly true—the market learns quickly and will adapt to take every advantage that it can. It rewards the largest, most powerful clients and sticks it to governments, small businesses, and individual investors. What it can’t learn is to regulate itself, despite the post-bust promises of the banks that drove Greece, Spain, and soon, Voss says, France to disaster. He warns that “Some people have an interest in the collapse of the Europe. There’s an enormous potential profit there.”
He rejects the idea that criminal elements are at work trying to outwit other people and Voss’s interview is closer to testimony than to the usual talking heads of contemporary documentary. He’s sometimes defensive, sometimes proud but often despairing. This film is a diagnosis of a system that is hopelessly sick and not being treated.