Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard’ on Netflix, a Documentary Chronicling the Battle Between Journalists and a Corrupt Corporation – Decider

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Oh great – Netflix documentary Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard is yet another movie that tries to de-obfuscate the way financial markets work. Which I guess leads us to acknowledge two things: One, there are so many massively corrupt financial institutions in this world, the movie industry can barely keep up. And two, The Big Short currently enjoys an unexpectedly wide-ranging influence, although no movie since has featured Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, explaining complicated stuff in a way we can all understand, although I bet we don’t remember what she said as much as we remember the scenario in which she said it. Anyway, Skandal! doesn’t have one of those scenes, but not every movie needs one to be good.
The Gist: The documentary opens like so many documentaries do these days, with a montage of tantalizing teasing highlights of the story to come: Billions of dollars! Corrupt corporate directors! Dogged journalists! Gambling, porn, terrorism! A manhunt! Someone saying, “It looked like a bank, but it was actually a robbery”! Now let’s begin at the beginning: In the early 2000s, Germany really wanted to be like Silicon Valley, and therefore up rose Wirecard, a payment processor, which is a third party that handles the credit-card transaction between a buyer (say, you) and a merchant (say, an internet pornography company). In fact, that’s exactly how the company built itself up – processing payments for gambling and porn sites, clients that other companies typically would rather avoid.
And so, Wirecard became “the German Paypal,” and CEO Markus Braun became “Steve Jobs of the Alps.” The company ballooned from 130 employees to 6,500, and at one point was valued at €20 billion. But, “No one would have believed this was the work of gangsters,” says one interviewee. Now we meet Dan McCrum, a journalist for the Financial Times; he’s our protagonist, since he’s an executive producer of this documentary, which is based on his book, Money Men, which has a really long subtitle that outlines all the work he did in years’ worth of investigative reporting on Wirecard’s many malfeasances. He’ll tell us all kinds of crazy, brazen, maddening, amusing, eye-opening stuff about Wirecard, so hold onto your hats.
Among McCrum’s journalistic sources are short sellers – people who bet on a company’s downfall. Some see short sellers as vultures, others see them as watchdogs who also happen to be capitalists. See, they do deep-dive research on companies before betting on them, and sometimes it turns up cooked books and other red flags, so they call people like McCrum so he can expose them. Incidentally, that exposure puts money in short sellers’ pockets – a key component of this story, because every time McCrum reported on Wirecard’s shady dealings, Braun accused him of colluding with short sellers, and even filed lawsuits alleging as much.
But McCrum was really really really really on to something. Really. This multinational corporation was setting up shell companies from Singapore to Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, laundering money for criminals. Its COO, Jan Marsalek, was likely linked to foreign spy agencies and right-wing political groups. Every time McCrum would write something about Wirecard, the stock value would plummet, but soon rebound, so it behooved the company to know what he was up to at all times. So McCrum alleges that Wirecard started spying on him and the Financial Times; there were indications that he was being followed and the newspaper’s computer systems were being surveilled, so they set up a hidden office, disconnected from their network, so he could work. He talks to whistleblowers and other journalists and plows through reams of leaked documents and weathers an intensive investigation into his work and eventually, finally, TAKES THOSE BASTARDS DOWN.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: That documentary about Martin Shkreli, WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, the movie in which Margot Robbie sits in a bubble bath and explains complicated things, Inside Job, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Performance Worth Watching: Nick Gold, an investor and admittedly lousy short seller who tells a story about how he was totally snowed by guys hired by Wirecard, including one impersonating a Sheik, into spilling important insider info about the Financial Times. At least he can laugh about it now.
Memorable Dialogue: Former longtime Wirecard employee Martin Osterloh has an amusing back-and-forth with the filmmakers about the company’s early clients:
Martin: We didn’t call them “porn.”
Off-camera voice: So what did you call them?
Martin: “Emotional content.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Of course Skandal! is fascinating, since it sets up a little guy, McCord, as the David who’s trying to take down a Goliath. That’s what differentiates it from all the other nonfiction films detailing corporate corruption, two words that, now that I think of it, sound so much alike, they should merge like two companies forming a monopoly: CORPORRUPTION!
I digress. Nice thing about this is, the good guys sort of won and the bad guys sort of lost. McCord plays up to the camera a bit, narrating events as if he’s practiced some of these lines, but he’s a likable sort who’s on the right side of this conflict. Marsalek ends up being the Roger Smith of sorts of this documentary, caught briefly on a hidden camera, and frequently described as a smooth-talking businessman-type who wasn’t above subtle intimidation and attempted bribery. There’s an ever-so-slight tone of self-aggrandizement here, since the narrative positions McCord and his Financial Times colleagues as tireless warriors for the greater good; there’s even a moment where former FT editor Lionel Barber says he told his reporters, after Wirecard’s failed attempt to disparage the paper’s credibility, “Next story, I want you to draw blood!”
After all this, those who aren’t fully inclined to comprehend the ins and outs of the way stock indexes and whatnot work (guilty!) may get lost here and there, but Skandal’s broader strokes still connect. Prolific documentary director James Erskine employs a quick, uptempo pace, vivid graphic-novel illustrations and a few spy-movie maneuvers – Wirecard’s offices were so globally far-flung, the story demands Bourne-like title cards – to make sure it’s not just another melange of talking heads, and all goes down as easy as possible.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Skandal! is a slick, serviceable documentary, as fascinating as it is entertaining.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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