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“There are no stupid questions”

Bankers stand at a table in Carmen Losmann's film Oeconomia
© Oeconomia

In her funny and thorough documentary Oeconomia, Carmen Losmann quizzes some of our capitalist system’s chief players on everything you'd like to know about money. Ahead of the Australian premiere, Goethe-Institut asked Losmann about what motivated her to make the film.

By Jochen Gutsch

Carmen Losmann’s latest film, Oeconomia, focuses on the finance industry and some of its biggest mysteries. In her approximately 90-minute feature, the German film director asks a variety of experts seemingly simple questions such as “How is money made?” and “How does debt get created?” The answers she receives show both the arrogance, but also the confusion, that is often present at the top levels of the global finance industry. 

Ahead of the film’s screening at Antenna Selects in Sydney, the Goethe-Institut’s Jochen Gutsch spoke to director Carmen Losmann, whose meticulousness, intelligence and creativity won her Germany’s prestigious Grimme-Preis for her previous film Work Hard – Play Hard. Carmen Losmann Carmen Losmann | © Carmen Losmann

It’s the seemingly simple questions that make Oeconomia so appealing. Do you consider it the duty of artists and journalists to investigate such matters on behalf of the general population?

With my naïve and fundamental questions, I would actually like to encourage the audience itself to question our capitalist economic system. After all, many people share the feeling that something is getting out of hand and developing destructive dynamics. As a filmmaker, I want to show that there are no stupid questions and that we are all equally entitled to ask them. In the film it also becomes clear: the ruling decision-makers are similarly constricted in their ways of thinking as we are ourselves and it makes no sense to rely on ‘those up there’ to fix it for us.

Why do you think so many of us are oblivious to the workings of the economic systems we live in? Are we too comfortable to show interest, or are we deliberately kept in the dark?

All backgrounds and contexts which are examined in the film are publicly accessible. So if you look at it, we do keep ourselves in the dark, or we prefer not to question certain structures in more detail. And I assume that many people are simply busy enough to cope with their lives under the current circumstances, so there is probably little time and motivation to delve deeper into the workings of our economic system after work.

At the same time, I have noticed that certain topics or issues that substantially question the economic system are only discussed in a very marginalised way in the media. The daily news and weekly talk shows are occupied with other topics most of the time, so that fundamental questions about the dysfunctionality of capitalism are virtually absent from media discourse. However, this gives the public the impression that everything is working well somehow. And at the same time, we are sitting in a machine that is running into the wall, and simply not enough people are thinking about the braking distance.
Bankers stand at a window in Carmen Losmann's film Oeconomia Flying high: The world that Losmann depics in ‘Oeconomia’ is dominated by skyscrapers, glass and concrete | © Oeconomia How difficult or easy was it to get the interviewees on camera? Was it possible to speak freely in interviews, and were you presented with restrictions?

The people featured in the film were open to an interview. Accordingly, it was easy with them and there were no other restrictions as far as the content was concerned. I had difficulties overall because there was no possibility of getting interviews elsewhere. For example, the German Ministry of Finance declined to allow us to film at the Finance Agency, which is responsible for the nation’s entire debt management, and to conduct an interview with the managing director there.

In a way, it is an unfair disproportion in the film, or perhaps in documentary work itself, that those who open themselves up are seen on screen, even in their moments of speechlessness, while those who keep the doors closed remain unseen and cannot be questioned further.

In any case, I have a great appreciation for the interviewees who took the time to participate and I appreciate their basic democratic understanding of the general public and its welcoming of critical inquiries.

The film’s visual aesthetic is largely carried by the architecture of modern financial buildings. We see a world that is bright and glassy, neatly organised by straight lines and right angles. Was this effect intended? And is the financial system as transparent as its structures?

Basically, I see architecture as an expression of the realities of life and spaces of action that surround us. I try to emphasise and make visible what programmatic ideology seems to be inscribed in architecture. After all, every building is also a kind of faith building. In Oeconomia, the cameraman Dirk Lütter and I tried to depict the world as one shaped by horizontal and vertical lines. What becomes visible is a grid matrix, a math book, a metric that breaks everything down into individual boxes that only relate to each other in a calculating way. At least that’s what I associate with it. And whether the financial system is as transparent as its buildings, I left that question to the audience to answer.

In the film you avoid overly dramatic effects, and in interviews your tone remains factual. Nevertheless, you shed light on conditions that are clearly unsustainable. Is your goal primarily to educate your audience, or would you go a step further and call for activism?

Overall, through my film I am trying to contribute to a discourse in which capitalism is questioned. My goal with Oeconomia was primarily that the audience can follow my questions and thought processes. Accordingly, it is definitely intended as an educational film. In my eyes, understanding ruling economic structures is a first step in consciously working for change and taking a different path. In this respect, the film is of course also a call for activism.

Since you made this film, the world has changed fundamentally. Some hope that a more just world will emerge after the global pandemic. In your view, which aspects of the mechanisms described in the film could realistically be improved?

Firstly, I'm sorry to say that worldwide measures against COVID-19 have vastly enlarged global inequalities. We are seeing, as if under a magnifying glass, the connection that has already been elaborated on in my film. Namely, worldwide, debt in the overall system has risen sharply since March 2020. At the same time, wealth has also grown enormously in the last year.

What I see that has immediate potential for improvement are the proposals of “Modern Monetary Theory”. The state as a democratically legitimised actor could use its debt capacity and spending policy to build socially and ecologically meaningful infrastructure, for example, buying hospitals and putting them back in public hands. Instead, the opposite is happening in Germany: despite COVID-19, more and more hospitals are being privatised and profit is becoming the focus of healthcare.

Oeconomia screens at Chauvel Cinema in Sydney as part of Antenna Selects on Saturday 1st of May 2021, supported by the Goethe-Institut. Tickets and more information here.