It’s weirdly comforting to think of the hotshot investment bankers who continue to imperil our economic infrastructure as glamorous super-villains. Though that notion has its unsettling truths (most obviously, the understanding that our government steadfastly refuses to effectively acknowledge a series of criminal conspiracies that will certainly foster greater financial catastrophes than the economic downturn of 2008), it still implicatively provides a digestible narrative structure with a tangible sense of cause and effect. And it’s precisely that sense of logic that Master of the Universe manages to uproot with disconcerting casualness. Marc Bauder’s documentary quietly detonates the conservative notion that our largest corporations should be allowed to duke it out in metaphorical no-holds-barred cage matches. Regulation is revealed to be unambiguously necessary, if for no other reason than to allow these bankers, who might be as enslaved as their victims to their own hubris, to see the social forest for the monetary trees. These traders aren’t wolves so much as cogs in an ever-undefined machine.
The doc relates a story of Germany, not America, though the resonances are essentially the same. We wander the abandoned floors of a Frankfurt finance institution with fiftysomething Rainer Voss, an elegantly rumpled former trader who tells us stories that largely sync up with the cautionary tales that we’ve heard of enterprising suits who manufacture “hot” stocks out of almost nothing, only to watch as their machinations escalate into a tidal wave of unfounded debt and investment that’s capable of bringing countries to their knees. Like many traders before him, Voss grew up in a working-class family dreaming of self-actualizing affluence, and got into the German banking culture in the early 1990s as it was being groomed by American finance to follow its expansively cutthroat gambler’s business model. Voss says that he and his colleagues looked upon the Americans as gods showing them the way.
In the tradition of most great docs, Bauder concerns himself with the micro, allowing the macro to assert itself gradually. Voss stands in for every trader, of any continent, who far overshot his means, while the abandoned bank obviously encapsulates all of economically uncertain Europe. The filmmaker shoots the bank in wintry blues, often emphasizing its exterior resemblance to a beehive—a visual metaphor that affirms Voss’s early descriptions of the insane, personality-annihilating level of worker-bee devotion that’s expected of a stock man. Interiors are contrastingly wide and open, particularly the trade floors, which should ideally have no dividing walls or pillars, thusly allowing for more computer terminals to provide stock information at an almost immeasurably rapid clip.
That enabling power of virtually enhanced momentum leads to Voss’s most damning pronouncement: that you have to be a simpleton to believe that the stock market’s traders are capable of learning from their mistakes, which are barely understood or recognized as mistakes to begin with in a culture that’s dominated by glorified risk addiction. It’s this recognition of legally nurtured tunnel vision that paves the way for the film’s unnervingly apocalyptic conclusion. Voss says that Europe’s economic desolation is a foregone conclusion, and it will fold when France inevitably topples over. Though Voss’s ruminations are informed by a thirst for legal evasion as well as for self-glory, you’ll find yourself straining for a reason to refute his hopelessness. Standing in his old office, perched atop the castle of his empty kingdom, resembling a middle-class King Lear as the winter storm blows in, Voss cuts a striking pose as a harbinger of doom.