Among the spate of movies inspired by the ongoing financial crisis, ‘The City Below’ (German: ‘Unter dir die Stadt’) is definitely one exceptional voice. While many of those – think ‘Too big to fail’ or ‘Margin Call’ - provide us with a tension filled account of the inner workings of events that led to the crash of banks and markets in 2008 this movie is anything but a thriller. Technically it is a romance, but it is essentially a portrait of the ‘sociotop’ which is the world of the ‘one percent’, the top echelons of a global bank in Germany’s banking capital Frankfurt.
As such the movie – rather than adding to feelings of anger, rage and disgust about greedy bankers – provides us, as it were, with a clinical diagnosis of the de-humanized, de-emotionalized and fake rational world which steers our contemporary version of capitalism. We enter a world actually devoid of glamour or anything to aspire to – and the film leaves us wondering whether the working life of the ‘one percent’ after all is, if anything, worth our pity rather than our envy. The synopsis of the plot runs like this:
A man and a woman at an art exhibition share a fleeting moment of attraction, which neither can act upon. Days later, a chance second meeting leads to an innocent coffee and the two strangers - both married - toy with their unexplainable fascination for each other. Svenja is curious and finds herself in a hotel room with Roland, but she does not consummate an affair. A powerful executive at the large bank where Svenja's husband works, Roland is used to getting what he wants. He manipulates the transfer of her husband to Indonesia to replace a recently murdered bank manager. Unaware of Roland's actions, Svenja now ceases to resist...
Watching the movie I could not help being reminded of Marx’s point in ‘Das Kapital’ where he differentiates between ‘dead labor’ (as in machines and assets) and ‘living labor’ (as in human workers). Marx made the point that capitalism ultimately results in the subjugation of living labor under dead labor, the ultimate de-humanization and alienation of 'human resources' (as we are called in today's business world) through a rationale of maximal value extraction. In his fascinating book ‘Dead Men Working’, our colleague Peter Fleming argues based on studies of call centre workers and other low skilled labor jobs, that we increasingly witness an army of all but physically dead men and women roped into the relentless pursuit of productivity and efficiency. Mind you, in today’s movie, death is quite physically part of the business: Svenja’s husband Oliver only finds out after being transferred to run the bank’s operations in Indonesia that his predecessor there had actually been brutally butchered while doing his job. ‘Necrocapitalism’ – as as onother of our colleagues, Bobby Banerjee, has coined the current system of global capitalism – though is not just hitting the disenfranchised, under skilled and exploited working masses (such as those killed South African miners in their attempt to resist exploitation and abuse this summer). ‘The city below’ shows us the life of those at the top – the ‘dead men working’ in the power houses of capitalism - and how their capacity for true human interaction, emotion, and passion has been extinguished, channeled and crowed out.
What better backdrop for exposing this than the realm of romantic endeavors? When Svenja’s husband, as she puts it, is ‘annoyingly’ friendly to her she immediately knows there must be an agenda: she smells that he ‘invests’ some niceties into their relations for a ‘return’: her putting up with him relocating for two years to Indonesia. The grammar of their relationship is the one of business relations: they had some sort of contract, ‘a deal’ that they would stay for some time in Frankfurt and we witness Oliver’s skills - brilliant but utterly dismal for a lover – to re-negotiate.
Svenja’s affair with Roland (a board member at the bank where Oliver works) takes this even further. For Roland, who is used to being obeyed and not questioned, the ‘execution’ of his desire follows a strictly transactional pattern, hoping that his status and clout will open him the doors. Even after their first sexual encounters he occasionally lapses back into addressing Svenja in the third person – the polite German level of addressing business partners. Roland has lost any sense of a human, emotional touch: when they make love the first time Svenja has to remind him that she is not ‘made of glass’ – unlike the soulless, deceivingly transparent furniture of ‘dead capital’, which surrounds most of his living days. One time she asks him to extinguish their ritual post-coital cigarette on her arm. But this movie is not ‘Fight Club’, where at least the sensation of pain allows the heroes to feel human again in an otherwise commoditized and instrumentalized word. In 'The City Below' Roland just manages a hapless Freudian ‘Übersprungshandlung’ (Displacement Activity), he can all but inflict this pain on her purse. The movie is modeled on the biblical story of King David who sends the husband of his lover out to be killed in battle. But unlike the ancient romance, Roland and Svenja’s relationship goes nowhere – and even that is part of their negotiated arrangements.
Smoking, by the way, has an unmissably symbolic presence in this movie. Currently in most Western countries banned from all spaces of capitalist work, travel and relaxation as a pleasure ultimately leading to death, in the movie it becomes the great one thing where rules can be broken and intimacy is still possible. The affair between Roland and Svenja starts over the inadvertently shared cigarette in a museum. His first line ever to her is in fact ‘Smoking is forbidden here’, and arguably it is this moment when his passion is ignited. There is not a single of the love scenes in the film which is not – I am not sure what – clouded or mystified by cigarette smoke. In a world of those dead alive the forbidden is the sensual; and an arguably dangerous pleasure is the niche in where whatever is left of human passion and emotion can be fleetingly enjoyed.
Roland and Svenja’s affair shows that humans, of course, cannot totally survive in a world where every decision, every relation is governed by an instrumental, self-interest driven rationale for maximizing one’s own or the company’s returns and economic success. Roland carves out spaces where he tries to escape. Once a day his driver takes him to some dump where he watches Junkies injecting their drugs. In essence the affair with Svenja is a similar attempt, and towards her he tries to reconstruct himself as a human being by taking her to what he pretends to be his modest working class childhood home (which in fact is the home of the murdered employee). These are not just kinky distractions in the movie, these are common patterns among top executives. We should not be surprised, for instance, that Ex-Goldman Sachs Boss and US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson for all his life has been an avid environmentalist and nature conservancy wonk in his free time – a contrast to his day job which could not be more gasping and irrational.
Having worked as a consultant for three month at Germany’s largest Bank in Frankfurt 13 years ago the entire movie struck a strange déjà vu for me. It's silent pace, the sterile, nearly theatrical acting of the main protagonists, the architecture and interior design, the language ridden with Anglicisms - all this resonates very well with my memories from that time. Despite unearthing a rather dire reality the movie is a very watchable, even humerous experience leading us into an otherwise hard to be experienced space – the world of global finance taking place far above ‘the city below’...
The movie 'The City Below' plays at the GOETHE FILMS@TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, October 30, 6.30pm