Film Review: ‘Master of the Universe’

Former investment banker Rainer Voss gets his closeup in Marc Bauder's riveting documentary.

Rainer Voss. (German, English dialogue)

Forget “Wall Street” and the “Wolf” thereof: Rainer Voss is the real deal, just as chilling but not so funny. The former investment banker is interviewed at length in Marc Bauder’s riveting docu “Master of the Universe,” shot in the emptied rooms of a defunct financial institution that stands as physical testimony to the unbridled hubris to which Voss, like an addict, hitched his career. Less a portrait of an individual than of an unchecked culture where the lure of staggering profits eliminates ethics, “Universe” subtly exposes the pernicious effects of deregulation and does so in an ingeniously cinematic manner. The film begins a one-week run June 6 at Anthology Film Archives.

“Master of the Universe” has been racking up awards since premiering in Locarno’s Critics’ Week, and it’s easy to see why. The financial sector has become an easy target since Enron, Lehman Brothers and Bernie Madoff gave greed a bad name, but Bauder does more than simply identify bad behavior: He gets to the heart of the whole culture, all through one man whose importance in the general scheme of things was never that great to begin with. It’s precisely Voss’ relative inconsequentiality, when judged in the broader context of corporate cupidity, that makes him such an ideal subject: If this man whom few people have heard of was able to blithely toy with world financial markets for his own profit, how many others like him are there out there?

Bauder opens in a masterful manner, his camera exploring nighttime skyscrapers in Germany’s financial capital, Frankfurt, zooming in on brightly lit offices where solitary workers are putting in overtime. Climbing up the corporate ladder is easy, says Voss, as long as you’re willing to devote your life to the company. Walking through empty spaces that were once trading pits and meeting rooms, Voss expresses an almost religious zeal when speaking about the adrenaline rush that once suffused the air, where traders’ desks made their occupants truly feel like Masters of the Universe (a term coined by Tom Wolfe).

For Voss, it all began in the 1980s and the heady days of Thatcher and Reagan, when deregulation spawned a wave of suspendered, striped-shirt-wearing American financial analysts preaching to their more staid European colleagues about the wonders of unhitched capitalism. Voss heeded the call and quickly became one of those cowboy-like gurus riding bareback on the golden calf, trying whatever worked for a hefty profit.

The guy isn’t outwardly unpleasant (nor is he charismatic), and the greatest mystery here is why he decided to participate in a project that he surely knew would be critical of his calling. He harbors a certain amount of bitterness since being laid off sometime in the recent past, yet there’s nothing vengeful about his tale, though he’s quick to say that despite the roguish powers of big-time traders, the shots are ultimately called by the biggest wigs above. Of guilt, there’s none, and in an especially unnerving discussion, he tells Brauder that the public are like lemmings: Human nature leads people to follow the scent of big bucks, so taking advantage of that isn’t treachery.

Voss becomes circumspect only once, when the director tries to steer him toward his personal life. There were wives, and there are children, yet his most important relationship was with the bank, and he admits he was basically a stranger to his kids. As for friends, when you’re earning around $135,000 a month, you slough off old pals, study up on fine wine and cigars, and make new buddies in your own bracket.

Occasionally Bauder includes news footage to silently comment on Voss’ statements, such as the hilarious moment when Carl Levin grilled Goldman Sachs’ squirming Daniel Sparks in a 2010 Senate committee hearing. Otherwise it’s pretty much all Voss, and miraculously, the helmer ensures that attention never wanders. Boerres Weiffenbach’s elegant lensing moves at a stately pace through the empty rooms, panning across storage areas full of dormant cables and bare archival shelving. The camera follows Voss up and down glass-enclosed elevators as he surveys Frankfurt’s multi-towered financial district, going literally from aeries of power to the underground garage. He points out a building that was once Citibank, then Merrill Lynch, then Bloomberg, and now China’s Bank of Communications — all inviolable institutions yet as changeable as restaurants, pulling out when necessary, leaving investors wondering where they went.

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Film Review: 'Master of the Universe'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (German Cinema — LOLA@Berlinale), Feb. 8, 2014. (Also in 2013 Locarno Film Festival; 2013 Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.) Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: (Germany-Austria) An Arsenal Filmverleih release of a Bauderfilm, Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion, Hessischer Rundfunk, Suedwestrundfunk, Arte production. (International sales: Autlook Filmsales, Vienna.) Produced by Marc Bauder, Markus Glaser, Wolfgang Widerhofer, Michael Kitzberger, Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Executive producer, Markus Glaser.

Crew: Directed, written by Marc Bauder. Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Boerres Weiffenbach; editors, Hansjoerg Weissbrich, Rune Schweitzer; music, B. Fleischmann; sound, Michel Kloefkorn, Lars Ginzel, Dominik Schleier.

With: Rainer Voss. (German, English dialogue)

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