German Series in the USA
How much are your morals worth? What would you be willing to sacrifice to be a player in the male-dominated banking world? Your relationships, your values, your health, your loyalty? The series Bad Banks is about the European financial market, but its relevance is global.
By Mark Tompkins
Money makes the world go round... and down the tubes.The opening of Bad Banks comes on like a disaster movie, only the calamity here is financial: as a TV news broadcast warns of a banking collapse that’s “five times worse than the fall of Lehman Brothers,” an angry crowd swarming around an ATM discovers there’s no cash left and starts rioting in the streets of Frankfurt’s financial district, the Wall Street of Germany. Anyone in a suit and tie is assumed to be a banker and a fair target for the enraged mob. Even with tear gas and barricades, the police can’t contain the uprising.
A lone figure in a hoodie skirts the violence to slip into a side entrance of an office high-rise. This is young investment banker Jana (Paula Beer), and as she navigates the debris-strewn hallways of her firm, a shell-shocked colleague blames her for causing the disaster.
The show then backtracks eight weeks to the day Jana is fired from her gig at a prestigious Luxembourger firm, apparently for upstaging a grossly sexist executive. In a milieu where getting fired is akin to death, she’s humiliated, devastated. But then comes a surprise offer to work at a powerhouse investment bank in Frankfurt, the rival to her previous employer. The near-apocalyptic opening teaser thus sets up an intriguing mystery: how could quietly competent Jana be the one to cause so much havoc? Millions of viewers have succumbed to this irresistible narrative hook and binge-watched the first season of Bad Banks.
ZERO-SUM OR NOTHINGNewly hired at Deutsche Global Invest in Frankfurt, Jana finds herself working for head investment banker and archetypal alpha male Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma). Forget those old stereotypes about frugal, abstemious Germans: Fenger swaggers around with a can-do “American” affect. He gives every impression of being a guy who psyches himself up for the workday by watching Tom Cruise movies on autoloop. (Atsma and Paula Beer both won numerous awards for their performances.)
Under Fenger’s thumb, Jana soon discovers that she’s a pawn in a power struggle among high-ranking executives at rival firms. But she refuses to be a victim. Having learned that conscience is an obstacle to professional advancement in this world, she will take her revenge on the executives, never mind whatever collateral damage happens to society at large. Head writer Oliver Kienle’s storyline becomes less a study of a moral slippery slope than a moral free fall.
There is suspense, but we don’t watch the intrigues here as if the show is a nighttime soap updated for the 21st century. Bad Banks is too unsettling for that. The audience follows Jana’s immersion in an amoral culture, but still roots for her because, as the young woman here, she’s subject to routine condescension and any number of insults. But the viewer’s sympathies are tested in a way that’s exceedingly rare for TV. An open question throughout the series is whether Jana has to “act like a man” to survive in a cutthroat environment, and only at the close of the series does she form an alliance that strikes a redemptive note.
As riveting as the many betrayals are, what makes Bad Banks a standout series is its cinematic style. Director Christian Schwochow and cinematographer Frank Lamm endow the action with a slightly chilly vibe more characteristic of arthouse film than network TV – slick, icy and eminently watchable. Bad Banks is a co-production between Germany’s ZDF network and Arte, the European cultural programming channel, and it’s not hard to assume that Arte’s sensibility figured into the show’s sophisticated aesthetics.
© ZDF und Sammy Hart
Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma) challenges Jana Liekam (Paula Beer).
© ZDF und Sammy Hart
Jana (Paula Beer, 2nd from right) is joined by a team: Thao Hoang (Mai Duong Kieu, l.), Adam Pohl (Albrecht Schuch, second from left) and Shanti Bhardevej (Utsav Agrawal, r.) are working extra hard to land a lucrative job.
© ZDF and Ricardo Vaz Palma
Jana (Paula Beer) is under great pressure, she is afraid to fail.
© ZDF und Ricardo Vaz Palma
The trio Jana (Paula Beer, right), Adam (Albrecht Schuch) and Thao (Mai Duong Kieu, l.) has found each other and concludes a diabolical pact. The duel goes to the next round.
© ZDF und Sammy Hart
Jana Liekam (Paula Beer) faces a major professional challenge...
© ZDF und Sammy Hart
Riots in the streets of Frankfurt. Jana Liekam (Paula Beer), clothed in a black hoody, tries not to get noticed.
© ZDF und KNSK Werbeagentur
Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma), Jana Liekam (Paula Beer) and Christelle Leblanc (Désirée Nosbusch) star in Bad Banks.
Bad Banks and bad bankers: not going away anytime soon
Bad Banks exemplifies how times are changing for German TV. The first two episodes premiered on the big, big screen of Berlin’s storied Zoo Palast cinema as part of the 2018 Berlinale International Film Festival, a prestigious launch that would have been unthinkable for a German show not long ago. A day later, all six episodes became available on Arte and ZDF’s websites and drew in more than a million views within a week. Only then was the first season broadcast on both Arte and ZDF.
It was the online viewing figures in particular, along with the rave reviews, that prompted the networks to order a second season of Bad Banks less than a month after it premiered. The series was snapped up by Hulu in the US and has since gone on to air in more than 40 other countries, another sign of how German series are now finding audiences all over the world. Bad Banks is now streaming on Netflix in German- and French-speaking territories.
Director Christian Schwochow has recently gone on to helm a couple of episodes of Netflix’s The Crown (the first German director to do so), among other projects; no word yet on whether he’ll return for more Bad Banks. But the writers should have no trouble finding material for new storylines. All they need to do is follow the real-world headlines about a certain bank’s ongoing legal troubles to ensure that Bad Banks stays relevant.
Filming of the second season of the ZDF series Bad Banks, this time under the direction of Christian Zübert and with scripts by Oliver Kienle, began in January 2019. In six new episodes, the second season of Bad Banks tells how the financial world reinvents itself half a year after the crisis.