Wednesday, June 4, 2014

MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE, Marc Bauder's classy doc about a German sleaze, opens at AFA

What a guy! There will be times during the course of MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE -- the Austrian/German documentary in which ex-banker Rainer Voss tells a-lot-if-not-all about the current economic crisis as experienced from the European side -- when you'll feel like sticking your fingers into the eye sockets of Mr. Voss and simply pushing as hard as you can. Unless, of course, you yourself are a banker or European-equivalent Wall-Street sleaze. Then, depending on your particular level in the hierarchy, you'll do everything from snicker in fond reminiscence (if you were anywhere near Voss' level) or simply wave all this away as "old news" and utterly unimportant now (if you're closer to the top of your respective organization, à la  Lloyd Blankfein, CVS -- Chief Vampire Squid -- of Goldman-Sachs).

One of the more interesting scenes in this new film, released in Europe in the fall of last year, and now opening for a week's run here in New York City at Anthology Film Archives, is that involving Jérôme Kerviel and Société Générale, the French multinational banking and financial services company for whom Kerviel worked and was eventually convicted of fraudulent trading, even though he claimed his practices were widespread within the company, and that making a profit resulted in the hierarchy's turning a blind eye. Under a little pressure from the film's director and co-producer Marc Bauder (shown above), Voss explains why traders get punished while the higher-ups never do.

Voss (shown above and below) also explains that in the old days, not that many years ago, when a share in a particular company was purchased, it was held on to for an average of four years. In our current times, that average is 22 seconds. What's the point -- other than to make a quick buck -- and where does this leave the company and whatever work it is supposed to be accomplishing? The film takes place in an empty building, not that long ago abandoned, in which one of those huge international bank/financial services companies used to be housed. The cinematography (by Börres Weiffenbach) is aces down the line. This movie at times looks better even than Cosmopolis. And the accompanying music (by Bernhard Fleischmann) works very well, too. But the center, the dead heart of the film, is Herr Voss' narration.

This guy tells us all about how to gyp your client, then excuses himself, contradicts himself, makes more excuses, and finally goes silent. This happens periodically. "You're always trying to get more out of me!" he exclaims at one moment to someone we assume is the filmmaker. Well, yes: That's the point, dear. Herr Voss began his career at around the time computers first came upon the scene, and so he smartly acquainted himself with this new machine, which helped his rise in the industry. The film's first half takes us up to the crash, the second half covers post-crash.

We learn a lot of interesting stuff along the way about our new "banking and investment services" industry. Lesson one would be this: Just because a transaction is highly complicated doesn't mean that it makes any sense. Regarding whether or not we're remotely "out of the woods" just yet: "It's going to blow up in our face; there's no way this is going to have a happy end."  We see our own American Congressional hearing, as congressmen try to pin Goldman-Sachs employees to the wall, and later we watch one of those "We want to help YOU!" commercials for a new German bank.

"The bigger the shit, the thicker the Corporate Responsibility Brochure," remarks Voss. In that case, this guy's CRB should be thickest of all, for he comes across as one cynical, self-satisfied son-of-a-bitch. But a smart one, it must be said, and one who has helped further lift the cloak of secrecy from the worthless (except to itself, of course) industry that has wrecked -- and continues to keep wrecking -- the world economy.

Master of the Universe -- in some English but mostly in German with English subtitles and running 88 minutes -- opens this Friday, June 6 (D-Day!) in New York City at Anthology Film Archives. You can check for performances times, tickets and directions by clicking the appropriate link.

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