Things could be different. But how? The filmmaker Andres Veiel spoke with 25 former bankers. Their interviews formed the basis for his new play “The Raspberry Kingdom”. The journalists Dirk Pilz and Harald Schumann met up with Veiel at his favourite pub in Berlin-Kreuzberg to talk about bankers, political responsibility, the crisis in the financial sector, loneliness, theatre and the power of the documentary.
P/S Mr. Veiel, in your play, five ex-bankers and a chauffeur share their worldly wisdom with one another. What is that all about?
AV It’s not worldly wisdom at all, but condensed views which I’ve borrowed from long discussions with bankers, primarily former bank board members. I was able to observe these protagonists reflect on their actions. We touched on various areas where they were forced to consider their own responsibility, the role that someone in a bank played, and also the banks’ decision to venture into investment banking. These discussions always focused on concrete cases, all of which ultimately came at the tax payer’s expense. In this respect, I was interested in individuals, who had recognized the fatal consequences of their actions, but still participated against their better knowledge.
P/S The play is a montage of snippets from an interview – Are they quotes?
P/S But why use such a complicated method of disguising these real-life bankers and these real-life cases?
AV It had to be this complicated, because the people I spoke with received a lot of money to keep their mouths shut. They all signed a contract binding them to secrecy. If they breached their contract, they could face civil litigation and very likely have to pay damages. They might have had to forego their pension, and in any case, would have certainly been excommunicated from the banking community. Therefore, they were in a very ticklish situation. These are people who had to eat their humble pie in recent years. As they got older, they were all forced to relinquish power – they weren’t really needed anymore. In their different banks, they all worked in a special department separated from everyone else – the “Raspberry Kingdom”. Although they were well taken care of, they were constantly in fear of losing their privileges and eventually being side-lined altogether. That’s why I met with attorneys to go through the transcribed interviews word-for-word. It was always a question to what extent certain details had to be obscured. Because people in the business could quickly figure out that a certain statement could only refer to Case X and the informant could be no other than Person Y. At the same time, I strongly wished to talk about their experiences.
P/S Yet you had the possibility of writing a simple, straightforward fictional story.
AV But documentary writing is what I’m good at. With few exceptions, there’s hardly anyone in business journalism who is willing to act against their long-term interest, namely keeping their source alive. Because when you investigate certain things against certain interests and publish your findings, you lose your source – your informant. That’s my explanation for why certain cases in this financial crisis haven’t yet been publicized.
P/S Your play might be based on authentic quotes, but by preserving their anonymity, these former movers and shakers of the financial world may have simply expressed their untruthful views. What makes you so sure that their statements were honest?
AV For one thing, I had several sources which always cross-checked. Secondly, I was never intent on gaining the absolute truth, but rather gaining different views, different ways of justifying oneself, of evading, of glossing over one’s actions. Of course, their vanity and self-justifying mannerisms influenced what they said, but that, too, is a truth of sorts.
P/S But do their statements reflect what these people truly think?
AV Yes, I noticed how at the beginning of their interviews, they were quite composed and delivered what seemed to be a prepared narrative. But as the conversation continued, their manner of speaking changed, their breath quickened, they became more agitated. You could observe an inner struggle, which evoked the necessity to continue speaking, but was always accompanied by the fear of saying too much. If someone were just inventing stories, you wouldn’t sense this fear.
P/S It seems that such an experience would be suited for a play with a coherent narrative, which would make it easier for audiences to follow.
AV The processes I deal with are far too complex to be told through a simple story of identification.
P/S How come? It’s possible to convey complex situations in a story of identification.
AV The play does present small moments of identification. But reducing everything to an emotionally easy-to-understand story would be limiting. You would have to remove a very central experience, namely that bankers consciously apply terms that are not supposed to be understood with the purpose of creating a hermetic world. Who can tell you exactly what stochastic volatility is?
P/S Is that what the viewers are supposed to find out?
AV Yes, but of course, I looked for a theatrical translation, meaning that I worked with actors who could think in this way, who were able to speak this complicated language so that viewers would listen.
P/S Aren’t you worried that you might be asking too much of your audience?
AV No, the actors don’t normally read the business section of the newspaper, but I kept working with them until they understood their lines, until they could deliver them. It wasn’t for nothing that it took a year to cast the roles.
P/S The characters in your play describe life on the executive floors as a kind of contest – a game of power, greed and fear. Despite the enormous concentration of power in these financial firms, there’s absolutely no mention of the political dimension. Are big bankers really so non-political that they don’t even realize how much influence they have on politics and society?
AV That comes in the second act! One of them explains how the bankers were appointed to a banking supervisory board by the Ministry in 2004 and told that in order to stay globally competitive, they’d have to finally let the genie of investment banking out of the bottle.
P/S That passage is more about the influence politics has on the financial world, not the other way around.
AV But there are also passages that refer to the European bank bailout. One of the characters describes how the bank executives drove up to the Federal Chancellery in the middle of the night, and the Chancellor asked how much it would cost. Three hundred billion? Four hundred? And the execs said, 500 would be nice. This clearly shows how politics released the genie from the bottle only to be led around the circus ring like a dancing bear.
P/S And why didn’t you include a politician in your play?
AV I didn’t want to push the limits of the documentary character by mixing too much together, just so that I could mention everything somehow. In the end, it would have just been a collection of various statements. The closeness in the room, in which these former bankers move about, was important to me. I wanted to understand their individual perspectives in order to portray their involvement in politics – how political leadership wanted investment banking and actively supported it to such an extent that they forced smaller banks to adopt this business model – only to be squeezed by these banks later.
P/S But if that’s true, then there’s no such thing as a banking world that is separate from the real world.
AV But there is, because the Raspberry Kingdom is a kind of eternal present, a place where people think – as they do in the first two acts – that they are still involved. Then it becomes clear that they’ve been pushed to the wayside, they’re no longer wanted, and they fight against their debasement.
P/S There’s a line in the play which reads: Things have happened which cannot be explained to anyone, at least anyone with sense. Should theatre be able to explain it?
AV I do believe that theatre is very-well suited to do just that. I originally wanted to make a film based on this material, but it would be impossible to make it in Germany. “The Raspberry Kingdom” is my fourth attempt to penetrate the inner circles of power with my camera. I actually succeeded with “Black Box BRD”, but all my other attempts failed. People don’t talk when they see a camera. But that is the advantage of theatre. Theatre people like to think the world revolves around them, but in fact, people on the outside regard theatre as a niche. People agreed to talk to me because it was “only” a theatre project.
P/S But is theatre suited to explain these complex processes of high finance?
AV Why not? I find it quite suited – also because of its special working conditions. You don’t need as much money as you do for a film. I don’t have a production manager hanging over my shoulder. What’s more, there are good books you can read about the banking crisis. But you need time – that’s a rare privilege. I have it, unlike the normal theatre goer.
P/S Your play “The Kick” was an attempt to reconstruct a single example as precisely as possible in order to arrive at a model analysis of violent behaviour. By taking such a concrete approach, the play conveyed something general. Is that what you have tried to do in “The Raspberry Kingdom”?
AV Yes, also with concrete examples, which I had to obscure.
P/S Yet insiders recognised that it was about the takeover of the Dresdner Bank by the Commerzbank. In one passage you write the federal government supported the merger despite the foreseeable catastrophe and even stated at the outset that the taxpayers would be liable for the losses. Are you feeding a conspiracy theory here?
AV No, I’m not only referring to this specific case, but also the decision to nationalize the Hypo Real Estate bank. Just last year alone, the bank bailout fund had to inject another 9.8 billion euros to cover losses made by the public bad bank “FSM Wertmanagement”. This crisis is not over – we’re right in the middle of it. My question is: What’s really behind all of these cases? Are these really individuals who have failed? What are the structural causes, what are the historical causes? The important thing for me was not to point my finger at 2,000 investment bankers and pretend everything would be fine if they would just disappear. I wanted to reveal the system, in which we all are deeply involved. Everyone who has a life insurance policy is part of that system – without knowing it.
P/S In the second half of the play, the characters admit that they too have their doubts and mortal fears. Was your intention to make viewers understand that a system like the financial world, which seems so abstract, was also created by people?
AV Yes, because this isn’t a phenomenon which affects a couple of nutcases, but rather people in the centre of society. By the way, I never steered the conversations towards the topics of death or loneliness, they brought it up themselves. I was something of a confessor to them at times.
P/S You portray structures created by people, which, in effect, can also be changed by people. This undermines the seemingly immutable nature of the banking system. Is this perhaps the hope which underpins your play?
AV Well, it’s an important aspect for me at least. The general resignation, this belief that “nothing can be done about it” is a result from people’s inability to understand the processes of the financial markets. Many refuse outright to take notice of it, because they don’t understand it. That’s why I demolish this abstract world in my play and show that every decision was made in a committee in a certain situation on a matter which could have been decided differently. There is always an alternative; there’s no such thing as “inevitability”.
P/S Right before the end of the play, an alarm sounds, warning that the masses may storm the bank. Were you expressing your own hopes for a revolution?
AV Not at all. The great thing about researching is that you stumble across the unexpected. I just happened to find out how the banks had reacted to the Occupy movement. They had set up emergency workstations in a bunker, because they were worried that if the masses did storm the banks, the trading processes would be interrupted and they would miss out on a certain deal. Imagine how much fear existed so that the mere possibility of a large demonstration was enough to move into former Cold War bunkers outside the city and reactive the old push-button telephones!
P/S In other words, the top executives of the banking system know there’s a reason to storm the bank?
AV You can interpret it that way, yes. I was with a banker in Frankfurt, standing in front of one of the bank towers, and he asked me, “What do you see if you look very closely? The tower is rotting from within. There’s nobody in there who still identifies with their work, only nomads, today in London, the day after tomorrow in Singapore.”
P/S There’s also a chorus in the play which frequently makes reference to father-son conflicts. Why is that?
AV The choruses don’t serve any evidential purpose, as if to say: aha, he’s got a problem with his father, that’s why he did this or that. However, of all the bankers I spoke with, only two of them were women. Whenever we talked about familial constellations which had influenced them, their relationships with their fathers always played a crucial role. It always had something to with suffering humiliation or experiencing violence. Many of them expressed the wish never to go through that again. And what better way to avoid a repetition of such humiliation than by rising so high that no one is above you who could knock you down. By developing an early-warning system to quickly recognise who could pose a danger to you. These are incredibly power-conscious people, who, when entering a room, immediately check out who else is in the room and could possibly challenge their position. This radar is essential for being able to rise so high. I don’t want to say it’s a prerequisite – that would be absurd – but it’s an important factor.
P/S Surprisingly, the most aggressive banker among your characters is a woman. That doesn’t seem so realistic in light of the fact that investment banking is almost exclusively a men’s domain.
AV If you look at Goldman Sachs, for example, there are many women who – like my character Ms Manzinger – walk a fine line, instrumentalizing their femininity and being instrumentalized by others. That makes it harder to put a label on the character – on one hand, she has a hard time asserting herself in a man’s world, yet on the other, has to be even more aggressive than her male counterparts. On one hand, she claims that two people would have to be hired to do what she had accomplished, but on the other, she also loses her grip on reality.
P/S Have you drawn your own political conclusions from the negative developments in the financial system?
AV Yes, but they’re not included in the play. The important thing for me was to have the play clearly show that no course of action is inevitable, and that other decisions could have been taken. For example, the credit policies of the ECB; for which the taxpayers are liable in the end, have nothing to do with inevitabilities.
P/S What needs to be done to protect society from the financial industry?
AV For one thing, people in the centre of society have to show interest in these processes, and secondly, we obviously need more transparency. There are lots of things happening outside democratic control. For instance, who elected the president of the ECB, who used to work for Goldman Sachs by the way? These are decisions which have tremendous consequences and require democratic oversight.
P/S There’s another major social conflict in Germany which is somewhat comparable – the 30-year-long dispute surrounding energy companies and the large power plants. Things only began to change when citizens were given the possibility to produce their own energy. Applied to this case, it would mean: Establish your own banks! We need more banks owned and controlled by the people.
AV Exactly. This isn’t about tearing down the bank towers, but rather looking more closely at what needs to be changed and preserved. We already have cooperative banks, but they’re systemically insignificant. If they flounder, they are not rescued at any price. Therefore, one of my conclusions is that each of us must feel more responsible for ourselves. What is the situation with my life insurance? My pension plan? I can switch banks. We have to get away from the political attitude that individuals have no influence. We do – we can demand to know what is happening with our money.