Bad Banks (German series 2018)

I’m old enough to still have images of the old stodgy banker in my head: the stereotypical banker was a solid, pudgy late-middle-aged man, and yes while he may have had a secret mistress who dressed him in nappies and spanked him, this was a man as boring and as no-nonsense as the sternest headmaster. In other words, the Banker was a respectable, middle class, plodding figure who took no risks with your money.

Fast forward to the 21st century: banks make easy targets when it comes to institutional villainy. This is especially true following the collapse of the housing market and the ‘shocking’ revelations that banks  (and the shadow banking system) engaged in the subprime mortgage fiasco. But with all our disapproval of bank-shenanigans, the wonderfully engaging German TV series Bad Banks reveals unmined territory: the pressure, the dirt, the creative accounting behind the scenes of the Frankfurt based Deutsche Global Invest bank.

Ambitious, yet fragile Jana (Paula Beer) is humiliated and abruptly fired from Crédit International in Luxembourg when she speaks out of ‘place’ while working with arrogant, misogynistic Luc Jacoby (Marc Limpach). But luck seems to drop into Jana’s lap when the older Christelle Leblanc (Désirée Nosbusch) offers to help Jana land a new job with the dynamic Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma) the head of Investment banking at the rival bank: Deutsche Global Invest. Jana, talented, yet naive, who leaves her boyfriend and his young daughter behind and subsequently moves to Frankfurt, is thrilled by Leblanc’s female mentoring/apparent act of kindness, yet as the story unfolds it’s clear that Christelle expects to be repaid….

The aggressive, charismatic, intimidating Fenger demands the impossible from his ‘team,’ and consequently, the younger bankers lead stressed out lives even as they compete, manipulate and whore their way to the next lucrative deal. Working with Jana is Thao Hoang (Mai Duong Kieu) a young Asian woman who initially loathes Jana, and Adam (Albrecht Schuch), a seemingly quiet, young family man.

Fenger recognizes that Jana has talent but that talent is only as good as the next deal she lands. There’s also a sexual chemistry between Fenger and Jana, but she’s difficult to read. She’s a cipher–easy to underestimate because she shows weakness. This display, though, can occasionally be played for maximum benefit.

Scenes show just how far these young bankers will go to land a deal, and Jana manages to leapfrog obstacle after obstacle, sometimes with questionable ethics while Thao watches on the sidelines oozing malice. Jana, aware of Thao’s dislike, tries to offer friendship, but Thao initially predictably rejects Jana’s overtures. Jana, taking a page out of Christelle Leblanc’s book,  decides to approach Thao differently:

Women don’t work together or form groups. They also won’t go to brothels together. We’d rather pretend to hate each other, destroying each other.

This is a male-dominated world, men have the power and the money, while prostitutes and strippers are just chess pieces to land deals. That leaves the female bankers with a poor hand of cards unless, like Jana and Christelle, they can be smarter.

Lots of drama here–lots of scenes showing how people are driven by various impulses which, inevitably, veer out of control. This is a dynamic, riveting drama, packed with spectacular photography, and while I didn’t care for the A team feel at the end of episode 6, this paves the way for further malfeasance.

I loved this series for the way it explores our relationship with money:

A simple number is a wonderful thing. It can mean something different for everyone. Wealth. Status. Recognition. Addiction. Adrenaline. Greed. Life. Everyone has their own drive. Their own number that they keep wanting to increase, a number they’re prepared to do anything for. 

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